YOU’D THINK that Alabama, crucible of the civil rights movement, would be wary of enacting legislation whose effect is to marginalize, ostracize and demonize people based on their ethnic or racial origin. But notwithstanding official protestations from Montgomery, that’s exactly what is likely to happen starting next Thursday when the state’s poisonous law targeting illegal immigrants takes effect.
As described by Micky Hammon, Republican majority leader of the state’s House of Representatives and the measure’s chief sponsor, the legislation was patterned after a similar bill in Arizona — but with “an Alabama flavor.” Part of that “flavor,” as Mr. Hammon explains it in a video available on YouTube, involves requiring residents to produce IDs to establish their immigration status in “every aspect of a person’s life.”
The immediate effect of the law will be to intensify the harassment and beleaguered conditions under which Hispanics in Alabama — legal as well as illegal — live their daily lives. In addition to the state’s legal Hispanic residents, an estimated 120,000 illegal immigrants are in Alabama, drawn there for the most part by jobs that locals have not wanted.
As it is, many Hispanics, particularly the working poor, face overt racism and discrimination, as documented in a report two years ago by the Southern Poverty Law Center called “Under Siege: Life for Low-Income Latinos in the South.” http://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/downloads/UnderSiege.pdf One example in the SPLC report cited data furnished by the town of Albertville, in northern Alabama, where 73 percent of the vehicles seized and impounded as a result of roadblocks were taken from drivers with Latino surnames, even though just 16 percent of the town’s population in the town is Hispanic.
In addition, the new law criminalizes ordinary transactions and even casual interactions with illegal immigrants, making it illegal to rent property, conduct any sort of business or enter into any kind of contract with undocumented residents. Landlords would be turned into immigration agents, forced to check identity papers — even though they lack the expertise to do so — or risk facing criminal charges.
The law would also penalize people who knowingly harbor or give transport to illegal immigrants, a provision that many religious officials say would criminalize churches that heed what they believe is the Biblical obligation to feed, clothe and shelter the needy.
Perhaps the most obnoxious provision of the law is its requirement that public schools confirm all students’ immigration status and report those who lack proper documents to school officials. State lawmakers and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange insist this would not interfere with the education of undocumented students, whose right to attend public schools was affirmed by the Supreme Court almost 30 years ago. But whom are they kidding? The measure is meant to frighten youngsters and their parents and will have precisely that effect.
The Obama administration has joined civil rights and church groups in challenging the law’s constitutionality. No matter how the court case comes out, the law is likely to have the intended effect of scaring tens of thousands of undocumented residents — and the unintended one of cementing Alabama’s reputation as a state where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work is unfinished.