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Alabama Takes No Steps Forward and Two Steps Back on Immigration

State’s Harsh Law Targets Students

SOURCE: AP/Jay Reeves

Marchers leave a park in Birmingham, Alabama, during a protest against Alabama's new law cracking down on immigration on June 25, 2011. Churches and other faith-based organizations sponsored the demonstration against the law, which Gov. Robert Bentley signed earlier that month.

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Just when it seemed Alabama had left its dark past of segregation behind, its legislature passed one of the nation’s strictest anti-immigration bills, H.B. 56, taking the state back in time 50 years.

During the civil rights struggles, Birmingham, Alabama, was the epicenter of the civil rights movement’s struggles for equality. It was known for having one of the most violent, aggressive, and pro-segregation police forces and one of most hostile education systems in the nation. Today, in a setting that is all too familiar, H.B. 56 reestablishes the educational racial barriers Alabama supposedly put in its past.

Gov. Robert Bentley (R) signed H.B. 56 into law on June 9, 2011, an anti-immigration bill even harsher than Arizona’s infamous S.B. 1070. Like S.B. 1070, the bill allows police to arrest anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant even if they’re stopped for a minimal traffic violation. The bill makes it a criminal offense in Alabama to rent a house or apartment to undocumented immigrants or to knowingly give an undocumented immigrant a ride. It also makes E-Verify, a faulty and expensive Internet-based verification mechanism, mandatory for employers.

But worst of all is that the law turns educators into immigration officials. Going even beyond Arizona, the law targets students and requires that schools collect information about the legal status of students and their parents. This law will lead inevitably to widespread racial profiling in education as in law enforcement.

Jim Crow plagued Alabama for more than 100 years. During that time, segregation was the law of the land, and an entire race was persecuted and isolated from the rest of society. H.B. 56 similarly seeks to marginalize and degrade an entire class of people within the state.

"In passing the most extreme anti-immigrant law in the nation, Alabama has shown the era of Jim Crow, a racial caste system mandated by law, continues as well," said Mary Bauer, legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center. "H.B. 56 is the new Jim Crow,” she continued. “No doubt this law is rooted in intolerance and hate."

A bit of history is warranted to show that this law not only goes against a Supreme Court ruling but takes the state down a road California traveled in the mid-1990s that led to political backlash and an eventual overturn of that law. Alabama’s harsh law is likely to make the state’s already-struggling school system worse and prove costly to defend.

Children in the crosshairs

Almost 30 years ago, in 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe that public schools and school personnel were prohibited from denying immigrant students access to a public education. Period. The Court concluded that undocumented children have the same right to a free public education as U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

Alabama puts students between a rock and a hard place by asking them about their immigration status and that of their parents, ostensibly to “track and report data” to the state board of education and the state legislature. Schools will have the right to report undocumented students and their parents. At the risk of deportation, many students will obviously choose not to go to school.

Vivek Malhotra from the American Civil Liberties Union argues that Alabama’s decision to turn educators into immigration authorities “flies in the face of the Supreme Court decision in 1982, Plyler v. Doe.” For Malhotra the decision to include education in H.B. 56 serves no other purpose than to intimidate undocumented students and dissuade them from enrolling in public schools.

California all over again

Alabama is not the first state to try to buck the Supreme Court and remove undocumented immigrants from public schools. California voters approved Proposition 187 by a 59 percent to 41 percent margin in November 1994. Immigrants were denied public social services, such as schooling, and publicly funded nonemergency health care services until their citizenship or immigration status had been verified. Like the Alabama law, it required state authorities to facilitate the identification and arrest of undocumented immigrants.

Prop 187 did not last long, though. Just a year after passage, the federal court ruled in LULAC v. Wilson that the proposition’s enforcement procedures were unconstitutional. On top of the law’s economic damage, the referendum’s backers suffered heavy political losses as the Latino community turned against them.

The political backlash came with unexpected momentum. California Democrats won every presidential, U.S. Senate, and gubernatorial election for nine years straight after 1994. With the exception of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the 16-year string of Democratic victories came as a result of this hostile piece of legislation.

We can expect the same in Alabama where the Hispanic population has increased 145 percent in 10 years. It seems that Alabama state legislators have forgotten all too quickly about the devastating backlash Prop 187 triggered. While Alabama may have a lower immigrant population than California did in the mid-1990s, the Prop 187 case still provides a cautionary tale for state politicians.

Fiscally and educationally irresponsible

Alabama faces significant fiscal costs and troubling social consequences as it follows California’s missteps. The new Alabama law discriminates against students and puts schools and teachers in a tough spot. It will burden educators with additional record keeping as well as waste funding that Alabama should be using to improve its education system. Alabama already refuses to adequately fund its schools, and yet it suggests that public education will somehow be enhanced by these unfunded anti-immigrant mandates and regulation.

When the school year starts on September 1, thousands of children will be scared to attend. They are likely to take the same path of the 40 percent of citizen students who drop out, almost tripling the financial and other burdens on law enforcement and social services. Currently, Alabama ranks 43 out of 50 in terms of overall educational performance. The lack of trust and divisiveness caused by this legislation will strain teacher-student relationships and weaken the state educational system even further.

Rich Fischer, a retired school superintendent in Mountain View, California, speaks of this frustration. "We’re educators. We don’t work for the I.N.S. [the immigration enforcement agency prior to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security],” Fischer told The Associated Press earlier this month, adding that teachers across the country are increasingly put in this difficult position as they have to choose between their role as educators and their new role as immigration enforcers.

Alabama, the future, and the courts

Federal judges in Indiana, Arizona, Utah, and Georgia blocked recently passed anti-immigration laws in those states. As in these states, civil rights groups have filed a lawsuit against Alabama’s tough immigration policy.

The Southern Poverty Law Center led this coalition to challenge Alabama’s extreme law. “This bill invites discrimination into every aspect of the lives of people in Alabama,” argues Cecilia Wang, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has brought legal challenges against several state immigration-control laws. “[The bill is] outrageous and blatantly unconstitutional,” she added.

Alabama faces a tough battle defending the law in court. H.B. 56 legalizes racial profiling, undercuts the Constitution by giving local authority federal power, harms the local economy, and most egregiously creates a subclass of uneducated, fearful children. The law attempts to instigate fear instead of solving what is undeniably a serious problem.

In fact, it will also make matters worse. This type of hostile legislation comes at a hefty price. A report by the Center for American Progress shows that a boycott that ensued as a result of S.B. 1070 will result in a loss of $253 million in the state’s economic output. This could be devastating for Alabama, a state that reported a $979 million budget shortfall for the 2012 fiscal year.

Alabamans are right to be frustrated with the broken immigration system. But Gov. Bentley and the legislature need to stop scapegoating immigrant children and turn their attention on Congress. Only Congress can enact comprehensive immigration legislation that restores the rule of law without creating an underclass of immigrants.

Natalia Mercado Violand is an intern with American Progress.

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