Alabama judge casts doubt on harsh new illegal immigration law

A federal court judge in Alabama Wednesday raised questions about whether a recent state law restricting illegal immigration has constitutional merit.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted August 24, 2011 at 9:11 pm EDT

A federal court hearing in Alabama Wednesday will determine whether or not a recent state law restricting illegal immigration has constitutional merit. Although the judge has until next week to strike down provisions of the law, critics say the legislation may drive undocumented workers to neighboring states.

Proponents of the law say that illegal immigrants to the state – whose numbers have increased dramatically over the last 10 years – are taking precious jobs away from legal residents.

In June, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) signed into law what is by some measures the harshest anti-immigration bill in the nation. For example, birth certificates or other papers showing legal resident status will now be required at government agencies and from parents seeking to enroll their children in public schools.

Law enforcement can detain people suspected of entering the country illegally if they do not produce proof of residency and employers or individuals face penalties if they knowingly transport, harbor, or hire illegal immigrants.

Wednesday’s hearing, held in federal court in Birmingham, is the result of numerous lawsuits collectively launched by the Obama administration, national civil rights groups, and state church leaders seeking to block the new law, which goes into effect Sept. 1.

US District Judge Sharon Blackburn said in court Wednesday that she believed “there are a lot of problems” with the statute, but that she would only hear arguments that framed the debate by its legality, opposed to its supposed moral or political merits.

Judge Blackburn acknowledged that the language in the bill as written is unclear on details regarding the process of demanding documentation at police stops and whether state schools have the right to demand the birth certificates of parents. She suggested Alabama lawmakers should have taken longer to define exactly how some procedures would happen under the law.

Blackburn did not say when she would make a final ruling.

There is precedent that at least some aspects of the bill may be struck down. Last year, the Obama administration successfully sued to block a similarly expansive immigration law in Arizona and federal courts have temporarily blocked – either in part or entirely – laws in Georgia, Indiana, and Utah until further review.

The Arizona case is on appeal in the US Supreme Court, which has not yet decided whether it will take the case.

Much of the debate in the courtroom Wednesday focused on state versus federal authority.

US Department of Justice Attorney William Orrick said the federal government overrules the states in immigration enforcement. “A state may not make it impossible for someone to live in this country,” Mr. Orrick said. “It is important that the country speak with one voice and that voice belongs to the executive branch and the Department of Homeland Security.

He suggested that, if passed, the law would also dampen the country’s reputation by corroding “values like opening and welcoming others.”

The law’s defenders argue it was drafted in response to a lack of federal intervention in what they describe as an unenforced immigration policy. “We asked for help but the federal government is not doing anything about it. They are not following what the laws say,” said Sen. Scott Beason (R), a bill co-sponsor.

Sen. Beason said illegal immigrants are displacing jobs from legal state residents, and the federal government has failed to step in to help.

Lawmakers intentionally wrote a broad bill to impress upon their constituents that they are concerned about the economy in the region. The law’s sponsors expect “to keep going back to the well and seeing whether they can craft [a law] that will get over the federal hurdle,” says Paul Horwitz, a constitutional law expert at the University of Alabama School of Law in Tuscaloosa.

“This is an ongoing state-by-state effort either to make a statement about federal immigration law or to make a political statement,” Mr. Horwitz says.

Data from the Pew Hispanic Center shows Alabama ranks 20th in the nation for its number of illegal immigrants, which totaled 11.2 million in 2010. Most of these – 58 percent – emigrate from Mexico.

Despite Alabama’s relatively low ranking, the rate of illegal immigrants in the state has increased rapidly over the past ten years. Between 2000-2010, the number of illegal immigrants in Alabama rose 380 percent, from 25,000 to 120,000. Today, undocumented immigrants represent 2.5 percent of the total state population.

The increase is part of a larger migration pattern that started a decade earlier. While illegal immigrants from Mexico remain highest in border states such as California, Nevada and Arizona, rates have declined in recent years as more workers have transitioned to the Midwest and Southeast. “They went where they could find jobs,” says Jeff Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Research Center. “That changed the direction of new migration to the US.”

Because the illegal immigrants in Alabama were largely absent decades ago – just 5,000 people in 1990 according to Pew – the issue is only gaining notice because it is becoming more visible. “It’s still really quite small but it’s a group that wasn’t there 20 years ago,” Mr. Passel says.

There is concern among second and third generation Hispanics in the state that the new law will be discriminatory against them, despite their legal status, which may result in sending them to other states to look for work. Critics say the law is written to single out any Hispanic whenever they are forced to interact with state authorities, whether applying for a driver’s license or waiting at a stop light.

“It’s going to cause a lot of legal immigrants a lot of grief,” says Michael Innis Jimenez, a historian who studies Latino immigration and labor at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. “Why stay in this state when you can get pulled over and harassed? That’s going to be a big issue.”

Illegal workers in Alabama represent 4.2 percent of the state’s labor force. The state’s unemployment rate reached 10 percent in July, according to the Alabama Industrial Relations Department.

While the bill’s sponsors say illegal immigrants are taking jobs from legal residents, some Alabama farmers say it is difficult to find documented workers willing to work in conditions such as extreme heat during planting and harvesting seasons.

Mr. Jimenez says that reality will also affect the construction market, which is now booming following the devastating tornados that stormed through the state in April.

“Right now there’s a shortage of workers and they’re scaring off a lot of workers,” he says.

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