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The Georgia and Alabama Anti-Immigration Laws

June 24, 2011

As draconian immigration bills pass state houses, it’s comforting to know that we have the courts. Arizona’s SB 1070 has been rebuffed twice in federal court, and Alabama and Georgia’s copycat laws in Alabama (HB 56) and Georgia (HB 87) will face similar legal challenges. But while the courts are critical for protecting minority rights, the judiciary alone cannot protect our country from an anti-immigrant offensive.

Anti-immigration advocates are working hard to spread these laws further and make them stick in court.  Pro-immigrant advocates and allies around the country must thus muster a strong response to break their momentum.

Alabama’s HB 56 and Georgia’s HB 87 encapsulate all that’s wrong with state legislative efforts. Among other things, they empower local police officers to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being an unauthorized immigrant (Alabama) or breaking the law (Georgia), and mandate that businesses use a federal electronic verification system (E-Verify) still in its pilot phase or risk losing their licenses (Alabama and Georgia).

The Alabama law goes even further. It creates state crimes for immigrants not carrying a document that proves their legal status and for anyone who knowingly gives a ride or rents housing to an unauthorized immigrant.  (A similar Georgia provision on transporting unauthorized immigrants applies only to those who have violated another law.)  It also bars unauthorized immigrants from attending public colleges and forces public schools to determine students’ immigration status. 

The provisions on transportation and housing open the door for a veritable dragnet of immigrant communities and the citizens who interact with them, similar to the “harboring” provisions in the 2005 “Sensenbrenner Bill” that provoked a national outcry. The public school reporting requirement, meanwhile, amounts to a back-door effort to scare undocumented immigrants from public schools, which violates a 1982 Supreme Court ruling that all children, irrespective of immigration status, have the right to public education. 

No wonder that Wade Henderson, President and CEO of the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, observed that Alabama’s “draconian initiative is so oppressive that Bull Connor himself would be impressed.”

As in the Arizona case, these laws will be challenged on the basis that the federal government has the sole constitutional authority to enforce immigration law, and should retain it, else we create a perplexing collage of immigration enforcement across the country. Equally importantly, as in the Arizona case, these laws raise serious concerns about racial profiling and public safety for immigrants and citizens alike.

The economic arguments for these laws are also dubious at best. In Georgia, for instance, Governor Nathan Deal based estimates of illegal immigration’s costs on an extremely problematic report by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which has been deemed a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Meanwhile, business leaders, tourism boosters and growers have publicly opposed HB 87 for its economic and reputational risk.

Though the legal challenge emerged quickly after Arizona passed SB 1070 last April, anti-immigration state laws continue to spread because they are being promoted by a formidable nativist network—namely, John Tanton’s national web of organizations, which includes FAIR and other “hate groups” supported by large benefactors and foundations, such as the ultra-conservative Colcom Foundation.

Faces from all different ethnic backgrounds make up the American flag. Photo: Courtesy of Sunny Ripert. (Homepage photo: courtesy of Anuska Sampredo.)
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With the deep-pocketed Tanton network firmly behind states’ nativist legislative efforts, these laws will continue to spread unless pro-immigrant groups can counter forcefully.

The immigrant rights movement has responded by rallying against laws like these, and national advocacy groups have pledged legal challenges that will likely block HB 56 and HB 87 in whole or in part. But the anti-immigration lobby is learning how to exploit the legal system. Conservative legal minds like Kris Kobach, Kansas’ new secretary of state and an employee of FAIR’s legal arm, have been strategizing about how to spread these laws as widely as possible and provide a sufficient veneer of constitutionality to resist court challenges.

The Supreme Court, with its conservative majority, has already upheld one key piece of anti-immigration state legislative packages in a case about an earlier Arizona law that makes E-Verify mandatory and threatens to rescind the licenses of businesses who don’t comply. In light of the E-Verify ruling, the high court also asked an appellate court to reconsider a Hazleton, Pennsylvania, ordinance that makes it illegal to rent housing to an unauthorized immigrant. Kobach and his allies are already trying to build on such precedent in drafting new laws, as FAIR boasted was done in drafting the Alabama bill.

All of this suggests that court battles alone will not stem the proliferation of anti-immigrant state laws.

Recognizing this, organizations like Alabama Appleseed and the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama rallied against their state’s bill and are already planning their response to its passage, including possible prayer vigils, rallies, and efforts to involve out-of-state allies. 

Meanwhile, pro-immigrant groups like Somos Georgia and the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights are organizing a “human rights summer” in communities across the state and a day of “non-compliance” with the new law. Somos Georgia and its allies have also called for a national tourism boycott of the state, which some progressive organizations have already heeded.  Given that immigrant organizing remains incipient in much of the Southeast, these groups need external pressure to succeed.

The economic and reputational costs to Arizona after the SB 1070 boycott had an important demonstration effect. Twenty-six state legislatures have subsequently rejected copycat laws, and even Arizona’s beet-red legislature defeated additional anti-immigrant bills this year. 

Without a vociferous national response to the Alabama and Georgia laws tantamount to the boycott following SB 1070, however, this type of state law could become the new norm. Copycat-hungry legislators will interpret the Arizona boycott as a flash-in-the-pan, while the Tanton network will continue working to find ways to make nativist laws pass legal muster. 

Each time one of these laws passes, it emboldens their supporters—not only in other red states, but also in purple and blue states. Nativism may have its strongest expression below the Mason-Dixon line, but it is not confined to the South and Southwest. If we don’t all stand up against it now, soon it could come knocking on all of our doors.

Tags: Immigration

To speak with an expert on this topic, please contact the communications office at: communications@as-coa.org or (212) 277-8384.
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