The fact that Alabama has HB 56, the nation’s harshest anti-immigrant law on the books, has become a point of pride of some Alabama Republicans. The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Scott Beason (R), has bragged about its success even as farmers described to him the crops they were losing without enough workers to pick them. Sen. Jeff Session (R-AL) even used the number of Hispanic children missing from school to show that the law is working.
But they should have considered the experience of other states before going down this path. Georgia lost thousands of immigrant farm workers and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic losses after passing a law that, like Alabama’s, required police to check the immigration status of people they stopped and rendered the state completely inhospitable to migrant farm workers. Arizona may not even be able to afford its 2010 law, which has already cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in conference cancellations, even though the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled the most extreme parts of the law are unconstitutional. Yet the GOP politicians apparently were blind to these lessons before they pushed a bill that went further than any other state, “igniting a civil rights, humanitarian, and moral crisis” in the state. While courts have blocked some provisions of the law from going into effect or stopping them from being enforced, the worst of the damage has already been done.
Children Scared Away from Schools: One provision tucked into HB 56 drew much of the critics’ ire: when children enrolled for school, officials were required to check their immigration status. When a federal judge ruled that this provision could stand after the Justice Department challenged it, Hispanic children immediately began to not show up for school. Fearing that their families could be at risk, undocumented children stayed home out of fear that their parents could be deported if they were discovered to be undocumented at school. Assurances from state education officials that only new enrollees, not current students, would need to present a birth certificate to prove their citizenship did not stop the withdrawals. A principal in Foley, Alabama said undocumented immigrants even made arrangements for American citizens to take in their children in case they were arrested and detained for not having proper immigration papers. The Monday after the law went into effect on Oct. 1, roughly 7 percent of Hispanic students in Alabama public schools did not show up for school. And because the schools receive funding based on attendance, the schools now risk losing funding because children were too terrified by the state’s law to show up. After two weeks of children avoiding school and families fleeing the state, the Eleventh Circuit blocked schools from checking students’ immigration status until the appeals court has given the law a full hearing. But the ruling is too late for those already affected. The students who were absent or already withdrew might as well wear a scarlet “I” for “illegal immigrant” because their classmates and school officials will surely know why they weren’t there.
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Illegal to Take a Shower: But HB 56 did more than marginalize undocumented immigrants living in the state. The law made it illegal to even live as an undocumented immigrant in Alabama by, among other things, preventing an undocumented immigrant from entering into a “business transaction” with the state; essentially, they cannot pay taxes or even receive water in their homes. At least one local water board in Allgood, Alabama interpreted the law this way — officials there posted a sign saying that all customers would have to present their driver’s licenses to prove their citizenship or they would risk losing their water service. According to the National Immigration Legal Center, the Montgomery Water Works and Sanitary Sewer Board also asked customers to prove their citizenship at least for a period of time, and Alabama Power reportedly told one family that they could not get electricity because of the new immigration law. According to HB 56, a “business transaction” can include (but is not limited to) “applying for or renewing a motor vehicle license plate, applying for or renewing a driver’s license or nondriver identification card, or applying for or renewing a business license.” (Applying for a marriage license is excluded.) But because of the broad definition and with it potentially including everything from paying taxes to receiving public utilities, this provision makes it illegal for an undocumented immigrant to remain in Alabama.
Too Late to Stop: So far, judges have blocked aspects of the state’s anti-immigrant law. Just as in Georgia, Judge Sharon Blackburn barred Alabama officials from implementing a provision that made it illegal to transport an undocumented immigrant, and a person cannot be charged for housing an undocumented immigrant either. But the heart of the law was upheld in that ruling — a ruling in which U.W. Clemon, Alabama’s first black federal judge, said Blackburn “was mistaken.” The Eleventh Circuit have stopped additional provisions of the law pending a full hearing, such as preventing schools from asking new enrollees about their citizenship and making it a state crime to be undocumented in Alabama. But it still too little, too late for the children scared away from school, and it does nothing for a family that may be denied water or power in their home because of the law. Under the law, people can still be asked to prove their citizenship or immigration status during traffic stops, and families will undoubtedly continue the move away from the hostile environment the state has created. Alabama farmers will continue to watch their crops rot in the field without their workers to help with the harvest, and the state will lose the $130.3 million that undocumented immigrants pumped into the economy through state and local taxes. In a way, it doesn’t matter that courts have knocked down parts of Alabama’s extreme law. There are no winners when the state is driving people away, potentially to its own detriment.