Once again the US Government must save Alabama from itself: Anti-Immigration Law Harshest to date

US Government to Challenge Alabama’s Immigration Law as Unconstitutional 

In 1970 Neil Young released a song entitled “Southern Man”, a scathing critique of racism directed towards Blacks in the American South.  Forty-one years later the marginalized group has changed but the tune sadly remains the same.

Yesterday morning US District judge Blackburn heard the US Federal Government’s challenge that Alabama’s ‘anti-illegal immigrant law’ (House Bill 56) is unconstitutional.  House Bill 56 will take effect on September 1, 2011. Alabama is not the first US state put through an anti-illegal immigrant law (South Carolina, Georgia, and Arizona all have as well) but their law is the harshest to date.

If allowed to take effect the law would have many disastrous effects: it is social regressive and has the potential to harm the administration of justice and local economy in Alabama. Worse yet, it will set a dangerous precedent for other states to follow.

House Bill 56 criminalizes the employment of illegal immigrants as well as renting property to these individuals.  The federal government is challenging 10 sections of the law, including the prohibition on illegal immigrants entering contracts, transporting illegal immigrants, and provisions requesting immigration status information from school children.

The prohibition on employing illegal workers does have one exemption: the hiring of casual domestic labour. In an interview with The Guardian (August 21 2011), Isabel Rubio of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama offers this explanation for the exemption: “It’s Alabama. It means you can still have your Latin household help”.[1] Yet if same illegal worker were to be employed by a restaurant, farm, factory, etc. then the employee and employer would be engaging in a criminal activity!

The most contentious section of House Bill 56 is Section 10. This section permits the state to fine and jail any person aged 18 or older in Alabama who cannot readily present paperwork demonstrating their legal status. In its preliminary injunction against Alabama the US federal government calls this penal sanction a “thinly veiled and impermissible attempt to criminalize unlawful presence”.  Adding that “[a]lthough Section 10 ostensibly relates to alien registration, its true purpose is to do what Congress has repeatedly declined to do — make unlawful presence a criminal offense”.[2]

Paul Harris in an article published by in the Observer (August 21, 2011)reports that the law may also affect the administration of justice: “By involving the police in immigration enforcement, Hispanic activists say crimes will go unreported as people will not come forward in case their immigration status is checked. This has huge implications of tackling domestic abuse, gang violence, or any crime that a Hispanic person might witness.”[3]

Lessons from Georgia:

Alabama would do well to study the cautionary tale provided by Georgia’s own anti-illegal immigrant law. Since the passage of the law in Georgia there has been significant movement of illegal immigrants out of the state which has severely impacted the state’s economy.

In an interview with Paul Harris of The Observer, The Georgia Agribusiness Council estimates that the labour shortage has cost the state $1 billion (US) in unpicked crops. The Georgia restaurant sector has also suffered due to outflow of low-skill workers. According to Karen Bremer, head of the Georgia Restaurant Association, approximately a ¼ of her members’ business are struggling due to labour shortages. She adds:  “[t]he damage has been done. The bad news had already gone through the communities”

In short, Alabama’s House Bill 56 is a blow to US race relations, the administration of justice, and the economy. The legal community is closely monitoring the outcome of this case hoping that Alabama loses, and common sense prevails.

Michael Niren

About Michael Niren

Michael is a graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. He is a member of the Law Society of Upper Canada, the Canadian Bar Association’s Citizenship and Immigration Section and the Associate Member of the American Bar Association. Read more

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