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The Failure of America’s Harshest Immigration Law

The harshest immigration law in America, HB 56, passed in 2011 in Alabama.  Two years later, its policies have been massively scaled back and the anti-immigration fervor that led to its passing has largely subsided.

Aspects of the law fueled by a 2008 election where the anti-immigration rallying cry was “Illegal is illegal” included prohibiting landlords to rent to undocumented immigrants, criminalizing giving aid to these people, and arrest and detainment for failure to provide citizenship papers at routine traffic stops.  Students’ legal status at schools were checked and citizens were empowered to sue police officers falling short of enforcing these laws.  In the 2012 elections, not only did HB 56’s main proponents, Councilman Chuck Ellis and Mayor Lindsey Lyons not get reelected, but immigration was hardly an issue.  Current elected officials in the state tend to take a moderate stance on the issue of undocumented immigrants.

When HB 56 first went into effect, the original goal was to expel undocumented workers from Alabama.  The sentiment was that federal policy towards undocumented immigrants wasn’t strong enough and the state took matters into its own hands by passing a law that targeted every aspect of undocumented immigrants’ lives in an effort to force them out.  At first, immigrants fled the state, minimized having to leave the house or drive in vehicles, and even kept children home from college to take care of younger siblings in case parents got deported.

“When it first went into effect, people were afraid to go outside,” said Father Tim Pfander of the St. William Catholic Church.  His congregation was strongly affected by the law because of his many Hispanic congregants.  The laws against aiding undocumented immigrants made soup kitchens and other Christian charities, as well as church ceremonies in Spanish illegal.  However, two years later the demographics in schools across the state are about the same as before HB 56 went into effect.  He noted, “Today, I think they’ve seen how it’s enforced and are carrying on.”

Churches weren’t the only organizations who felt the weight of HB 56.  Many police officers resisted the law simply because they didn’t have the manpower to enforce them.  Quick, routine traffic stops turned into long, drawn-out arrests and detentions since the law required local police stations to detain those without documentation until federal immigration authorities could determine what to do with them.  Officers had qualms with hauling people off to jail for minor traffic offenses, and confusion about who had to provide papers and when deterred the Hispanic population from reporting crimes committed against them or even talking to police officers.  Confusion about when documented proof of citizenship was required also baffled state courts and utilities companies clogging the system and causing long lines for citizens and non-citizens alike.

Even a Mercedez-Benz executive pulled over for not having proper tags on his rental vehicle was subject to arrest and detainment for a traffic citation.  This terrified the business community and contributed to Republican Senator Gerald Dial who had voted for HB 56 to say, “I’ve learned in life that if you make a mistake, you should be man enough to admit it.”

Adapted from: Sarlin, Benjy.  “How America’s harshest immigration law failed,” MSNBC. December 16, 2013.  http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/undocumented-workers-immigration-alabama