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Alabama Misses an Opportunity to Truly Reform its Enforcement Law and Adds New Civil Rights Intrusions

In May, Alabama enacted a new state immigration law.  This law makes changes to Alabama’s “toughest-in-the-nation” state immigration enforcement regime (HB 56), which passed in 2011. 

When the Alabama legislature first took up the task of changing HB 56 this year, it had an opportunity to enact real and true reform.  Two legislators proposed a complete repeal of the offensive law.  One of the repeal bills made it all the way to a floor vote and lost by a much closer margin than expected.  Other legislators proposed tweaking HB 56 in different ways.  One of these bills would have completely removed two particularly controversial parts of HB 56: requiring public school boards to determine the immigration status of newly enrolling K-12 students and their parents; and criminalizing the failure to carry certain federal immigration documents at all times.  Another of these bills would have added a helpful exemption for churches and church-affiliated organizations, protecting them from criminal prosecution for serving all individuals in need regardless of immigration status.

But none of the above suggestions for reform were accepted.  The new law (HB 658) left fully intact the provisions requiring public schools to investigate children’s immigration status and criminalizing the failure to carry certain federal papers.  It dropped the proposed language protecting churches and church-affiliated institutions. 

And it added new civil rights intrusions.  Instead of defending Alabama residents from unconstitutional policing, it openly chastised the U.S. Department of Justice for trying to do so.  And it required state officials to publish the names of all undocumented individuals who are arrested and come before a judge for any violation of state law, no matter how minor.  The name of the judge and whether s/he decided to detain or release the person must also be included.  This public list of names will be on a state-run website for all to see.  

Even the elements of good that the new law achieves do not go far enough and, ironically, may result in more of HB 56 going into effect than federal courts had previously allowed.   Citing changes made by HB 658, the state of Alabama recently asked a federal court to reconsider its prior decision to block two parts of HB 56: one banning public colleges and universities from enrolling undocumented students (§ 8), and another making it a crime to engage in certain “business transactions” with the state (§ 30). 

It remains to be seen how all of this will play out in the courts.  But from the perspective of civil rights, HB 658 is a missed opportunity.