Fate of Alabama anti-immigrant law a lesson for NC and other states

By: - November 5, 2013 8:30 am

Immigrants ICEA recent court settlement in Alabama should serve as a warning to North Carolina legislators who still seek to pass anti-immigrant laws. Alabama agreed to settle two law suits brought against it after the passage of its harsh anti-immigrant law, HB 56, in 2011.  Both immigrants’ rights groups and the U.S. Department of Justice sued Alabama over different parts of the law, and both those suits settled last week.

Previously many of the harshest provisions of the Alabama law had already been temporarily blocked by courts, and in the new settlement, Alabama agreed that those provisions would never go into effect, including a provision requiring public schools to verify the immigration status of students, and one preventing all contracts with undocumented immigrants. The permanent blocking of those harmful provisions is a huge victory for immigrants in Alabama and across the nation.

Most of the parts of the law that are now permanently blocked in Alabama never made it into North Carolina’s omnibus immigration bill, HB 786, which was proposed in 2013.  However, several provisions in Alabama’s law were identical or similar to those proposed here, and their fate in this recent settlement should be of interest to state lawmakers.

North Carolina legislators, for example, included provisions in HB 786 allowing a person’s immigration status to be admissible in court proceedings (which perpetrators of domestic violence could use to intimidate their victims). An identical provision was permanently blocked in the Alabama settlement this week, due to “constitutional problems.”  The same fate befell a provision (identical to one proposed in North Carolina), that would have allowed state and local law enforcement officers to transport prisoners to immigration detention, even out of state.

Even more significant is the decision that Alabama made about the “show me your papers” provision, whose language was very similar to that proposed in North Carolina’s HB 786.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s U.S. v. Arizona decision cast serious doubt on the constitutionality of such measures, and Alabama took that as its cue to back off on its enforcement of these provisions. under the settlement, Alabama agreed that in light of “constitutional problems” it would interpret the so-called “show me your papers” provision to “neither require nor authorize state or local law-enforcement officers to stop, detain, arrest, or prolong the detention of any person for the purpose of ascertaining that person’s immigration status or because of a belief that the person lacks lawful immigration status.”

The same interpretation will now be applied in Alabama to a provision (similar to one proposed in NC’s HB 786) which would have denied bond to undocumented immigrants on the presumption that they are a flight risk. Courts will ultimately decide what it means to “prolong” someone’s detention, but certainly keeping a person at the side of the road for any extended period of time only to check her immigration status would probably be considered unreasonable and unconstitutional. Certainly, Alabama law enforcement will not be able to detain anyone now or deny him bond simply because they suspect he may be undocumented.

In short, if any legislators or law enforcement officals in North Carolina harbored any intention ofr desire to use HB 786 or other similar proposals as a means to harass or detain immigrants based solely on their immigration status, the Alabama settlement certainly calls in question their ability to do so without serious repercussions. While immigrant advocates will continue to battle illegal racial profiling and harassment of immigrants in every state, the Alabama settlement at least makes clear that local law enforcement cannot legally stop and detain immigrants just to check their status, or to keep them in detention longer solely because of their immigration status.

The agreement in Alabama is a voluntary settlement (which has not yet been approved by the Court) and does not have binding effect on North Carolina courts. However, Alabama litigated the case vigorously, and the fact that it has now almost completely backed off many of the central parts of the law says something about the strength of the plaintiffs’ arguments against these anti-immigrant measures. Significantly, Alabama also had to pay $350,000 to the plaintiffs’ attorneys, in addition to the money they had to pay their own attorneys to litigate the case for two years—money that Alabama could have put toward investing in their state in more positive ways.

While most of the proposed provisions of North Carolina’s HB 786 did not pass in 2013, some legislators have expressed a desire to introduce immigration-related legislation again in 2014. Hopefully, the Alabama settlement will make North Carolina legislators see that the likelihood of successfully enforcing these anti-immigrant measures is low in comparison to the high cost it takes to defend them.

(Photo: Think Progress)

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