Racial profiling in Alabama

October 4, 2011

The way has been cleared for implementation of Alabama's anti-immigrant law, and a climate of fear is palpable in immigrant communities, reports Rebekah Ward.

BACK IN July, 10-year-old Ana Paulina Rios was chanting and carrying a sign protesting a recently passed anti-immigrant bill in Alabama. "I don't like this law because it makes people feel bad," she told a reporter. Now the neighborhood where Rios and thousands of other immigrants live is being transformed by fear--because the way has been cleared for that law to be implemented.

A federal court ruling gave the green light for implementation of some of the ugliest parts of Alabama's House Bill 56 (HB 56), sparking fear in Latino communities across the state. Already, there are reports of immigrants fleeing the state and widespread absences of Latino students at public schools.

Bucking the national trend in these cases, U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn refused to block portions of HB 56 that permit racial profiling of immigrants. These provisions encourage local police to check the immigration status of people they think may be undocumented, even during routine traffic stops. If the person asked to provide documentation of immigration status can't produce papers on the spot, he or she can be detained without bond indefinitely.

A protest against Alabama's anti-immigrant law HB 56
A protest against Alabama's anti-immigrant law HB 56

This year alone, federal judges have blocked the "papers, please" provisions of anti-immigrant laws in Utah, Indiana and Georgia.

Blackburn also upheld a provision of the law requiring schools to verify the immigration status of students and their parents. Another provision makes it illegal to enter into any contract with an undocumented person. The judge did block provisions that would have made it a criminal offense to seek work, to "transport or harbor" undocumented friends and family, and to seek to hire undocumented day laborers.

But the judge's decision to allow some of the harshest measures to go into effect in late September has confirmed Alabama's title as the "state of hate" among immigrant rights activists.

THE FAILURE of the federal courts to block the racial profiling aspect of HB 56 has also sent a ripple of alarm through immigrant communities beyond Alabama.

The large-scale opposition to Arizona's notorious SB 1070, the first of these state-level anti-immigrant laws, compelled a judge to strike down the harshest aspects of the law before it went into effect. When the federal injunction against those measures was upheld at the appellate level, there was a sense of relief.

But Blackburn's decision has opened up new questions about the direction of federal court decisions, prompting fear that judges might even reverse the previous injunctions in other places.

The legal okay for law enforcement to racially profile immigrants will subject Latinos and other immigrants to constant police abuse--affecting citizens and non-citizens, the documented and the undocumented. This is what is prompting many immigrants to move out of Alabama.

Likewise, the provision that calls on schools to verify immigration status of students has already had its desired effect. The law requires Alabama's 132 school districts to report the number of children without birth certificates, but not their names.

But the fear that such verification will be used to target children and their parents for deportation is real. The day after Blackburn's ruling, several districts reported massive absences of Latino students. For example, in one of Alabama's largest cities, Huntsville, 14 percent of Latino students stayed home the day after the ruling, according to the Associated Press.

This component of the law will also affect families with differing immigration statuses. Children born in the U.S. but who have an undocumented relative living in their home may also be effectively pushed out of the public school system by HB 56.

Judge Blackburn blocked implementation of a provision that would have barred undocumented students from attending public colleges in Alabama. But the ruling erects significant barriers to students seeking to attend K-12 public schools. How can these students get to college when they are being driven out of elementary school?

MANY IN the immigrant rights movement are asking why this ruling departed from the precedents of other judicial rulings that set aside aspects of anti-immigrant laws in other states. In those cases, judges blocked many elements of these laws based on the argument that enforcement of federal immigration laws should be carried out at the federal level, and not through state-by-state legislation. But Blackburn's ruling turned the legal strategy on its head.

In her ruling, she asserted that this argument only applies to areas the federal government has specifically regulated. She further stressed that only Congress held the prerogative to make immigration policy, thus disregarding recent changes made by the Obama administration to the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Blackburn therefore blocked only portions of the law that were in conflict with something Congress had made a specific law about.

The fight against the ruling will continue within the legal system. "We expect a higher court to side with every other court decision in the country that has been made on similar anti-immigrant legislation and overturn Judge Blackburn's extremely disappointing decision," said Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza.

But there are other reasons that this ruling deviated from patterns set elsewhere. In all previous states where such legislation has been put forward, there have been large mobilizations against it. In Atlanta, 35,000 people marched against Georgia's anti-immigrant HB 87, and almost 100,000 gathered in 2010 against Arizona's SB 1070.

In Alabama, organizers believed that legal challenges would prevent the worst parts of the law from being implemented. There is also less activist infrastructure in Alabama than in many of the other places where similar legislation was introduced. As a result, the challenge from below was muted.

Another factor is that the shift in Alabama's demographics has been more rapid and recent than many other states that have passed similar anti-immigrant laws. In the last decade, Alabama's Latino population grew by 145 percent to around 185,600 people. Although Alabama's Latinos account for only 4 percent of the total population, in some of northern agricultural counties, they are a larger proportion of the population.

Alabama also has a much higher poverty rate--the seventh-highest in the nation, with 16 percent living below the poverty line--than other states that have passed such laws.

Politicians have thus stoked anti-immigrant fear by appealing to the desperate need that many people feel for greater access to state and federal services such as schools and hospitals. But of course, it's the politicians demanding cuts to social service and the wealthy enjoying hefty tax cuts that are the real reason for dwindling public services at a time when more people than ever need them.

Now, immigrants will pay the price for a racist hysteria whipped up by politicians.

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