Alabama Immigration Law Ready To Be Enforced

Alabama's immigration law has been called the toughest in the country, and many of its provisions will go into effect today. Police will be required to check suspects' immigration status, and public schools will be required to check students' status. Michel Martin discusses the law with NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott and Allison Neal, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'd like to thank Jacki Lyden for sitting in for me earlier this week. Coming up, women in Saudi Arabia can finally vote, just not in elections taking place today. That nation's sovereign king, Abdullah, has declared that women will be able to vote starting in 2015. We'll talk about what that may or may not say about the future of women's rights in Saudi Arabia.

That conversation is coming up in a few minutes. But first we turn to Alabama, where provisions of what's been called the toughest immigration law in the nation will take effect today. In that state schools will now be required to keep records on the immigration status of students. Police will check the immigration status of suspects, including those detained for traffic stops, as state and local agencies are forbidden from doing business with the undocumented.

That comes after U.S. district judge, Sharon Blackburn, turned back challenges to the law from the U.S. Department of Justice as well as a coalition of civil rights and religious groups. This is Alabama Governor Robert Bentley saying why he felt his state had to act.

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ROBERT BENTLEY: It would not have been necessary to address this problem if the federal government would have done its job and enforced the laws dealing with this problem.

MARTIN: Joining us now to talk more about this is NPR national correspondent, Debbie Elliott. She's based in Alabama, and she's been covering this new immigration law and also immigration laws around the country. Debbie thanks so much for joining us.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: And thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Could you just clarify the most important provisions of the law that were upheld?

ELLIOTT: You know, some of the strictest and some of the most controversial provisions will remain intact after this ruling, yesterday. For instance, you eluded to it just a moment ago, a requirement that public schools document the immigration status of students and their parents. Local law enforcement must verify the status of suspects and jail those without proper documents. It is now against the law to enter into any kind of a contract with an illegal immigrant.

You talked about state and local agencies that - that is forbidden. And there are now penalties for employers who hire undocumented workers. Starting in April, they all have to use the federal e-verify system when they hire somebody. And they can even be open to discrimination lawsuits if they fire a U.S. citizen or a legal immigrant, yet still keep in their employ, illegals. So much of what both supporters and opponents have said make this the toughest law in the country, are now the law in Alabama today.

MARTIN: Now, we've reported earlier on a number of faith leaders who were very vocal in opposing this law. What about the concerns that they had and what provisions of the law were struck down and are they pleased with that?

ELLIOTT: Well, faith leaders were part of a coalition challenging the law, because they were worried about a provision that made it illegal to conceal, harbor, shield, transport, or rent to an illegal immigrant. Now, the judge actually said they didn't have standing to sue and through out their case, but it was moot anyway, because she had agreed with the Justice Department and threw out that section based on the argument that in that case, the state was pre empting federal immigration law when it tried to make all of those things illegal.

She also upheld a few other provisions. One that prevented those not lawfully present in the U.S. from going to public colleges in the state, and sections that would have made it a crime to apply for or perform work if you're undocumented or even to solicit or pick up day laborers on the side of a roadway.

MARTIN: So, presumably people can still seek work?

ELLIOTT: Yes.

MARTIN: Even though you're not supposed to hire people, but it's not a crime to seek work?

ELLIOTT: Exactly.

MARTIN: Interesting now I'd like to focus a bit more on the provision affecting schools. Now, you said that the law requires schools to check the status of both students and parents?

ELLIOTT: Um-hum.

MARTIN: How exactly are they supposed to do that?

ELLIOTT: That is a question I think that is being asked all over the state today. And I think local school systems are going to be looking for some additional guidance from both the state attorney general's office and The Department of Education. But generally, the way it was presented in arguments before Judge Blackburn from the state attorney general - when you enroll your children in public school here you provide a birth certificate. Now, if the child doesn't have that school officials are now going to be required to send a letter home that seeks further documentation on where the child was born and whether or not his or her parents are legal residents.

Now, school officials can't force the family to provide that information and can't prevent a kid from going to school if they don't provide it, but they're going to have to document that in some way. They may check a box somewhere.

MARTIN: But are they required - are the parents, then, required to present their own birth certificates?

ELLIOTT: I don't know the answer to that question. I think not, but that is going to be up for the state to figure it out. Now...

MARTIN: Which is one of the things that I guess was part of the discussion around adopting this law to begin with?

ELLIOTT: Right, this is why this particular provision has really drawn a lot of attention and a lot of confusion, I think, because schools are not allowed, by law, to reject any student just because they don't have documents. But there is, now, this fear in the immigrant community, that if they provide this information that somehow it's going to be used to target them for deportation. Sponsors of the bill, the state officials, say, you know, no, that's not what we're trying to do.

We're just trying to get a handle on what the state spends to educate the children of illegal immigrants. But regardless, it's going to fall on school officials. I saw a quote today from someone in the Birmingham area, saying, you know, teachers are not immigration officers but we're going to try to obey this law.

MARTIN: And Debbie, I want you to just stand by. That's NPR correspondent Debbie Elliott, who's been reporting on this. I'd like to bring in Allison Neal, now. She's the legal director of The American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama which is one of the groups that challenged the law. Miss Neal, you've heard Debbie's description of the law. What are the provisions that you're most concerned about? Is it the law that requires - is it the provision that requires the schools to check the immigration status of students and parents, or are there other things that equally concern you?

ALLISON NEAL: Well, we're definitely concerned about the section that Debbie eluded to, which we feel blocks children's access to public schools. And we have a very real concern that children are going to be taken out of schools as a result of this, out of the fear that this section causes. We're also very concerned about the section which requires police to demand papers from people who they suspect appear undocumented.

We're worried if that's going to result in a systematic racial profiling of anyone who looks or sounds foreign. And of course, we're also very - I mean, we're concerned about all the sections. We're also very concerned about the section that makes it a felony for an alien to enter into a business transaction. Even before the law went into affect, we learned that the cities of Montgomery and Allgood were requiring proof of lawful residence to obtain water services. So, as a result of the judge's failure to enjoin that portion of the law, folks maybe without water this morning.

MARTIN: What is your recourse now, Miss Neal? As we mentioned, The Department of Justice - the U.S. Department of Justice - also challenged the law and the federal judge, Sharon Blackburn, did not find their arguments compelling. So, what is your next step?

NEAL: Oh, well, we will be appealing this decision.

MARTIN: And all of it? On particular grounds, and on what grounds?

NEAL: Well, we will be appealing her decision, at least, I mean, we haven't done a comprehensive analysis of what all we will appeal, but I know we will be appealing the section that requires law enforcement officers to demand papers for people who they suspect to appear undocumented. And then we will be appealing the section which we believe blocks children's access to public schools and the section that makes it a felony for aliens to enter into business transactions - I mean the sections that we mentioned that I mentioned before.

And also the section that bars Alabama courts from enforcing a contract. I mean, you know, we're appealing quite a few.

MARTIN: You have a very profound and deep disagreement with most of the law, that which was blocked - that which was allowed to go forward. Debbie we've been talking about the substance of the law. I'd like to ask you a bit about the politics of it. Was this a popular bill as it moves through the legislature? And can you just talk a little bit about who supported it and who didn't? We talked a little bit about the members of the faith community who were concerned about provisions that they felt would conflict with their religious duty to care for people no matter their status. But is this a popular issue?

ELLIOTT: You know, I think when Republicans took over the Statehouse in Montgomery last year, this was one of their main campaign promises and it is a very popular kind of populist theme in a broad sense, in a big sense.

There are parts of the state, particularly in north Alabama, where there is a lot of agriculture, poultry plants, that kind of thing, where there has been a very significant increase in communities, Latino communities in particular. And it's caused some cultural issues, I think, in some of those towns.

But it's hard to find - now that the law is actually on paper and affecting people, it's hard to find a lot of groups that absolutely love the law because the details are having an impact, I think, that some state officials maybe were not anticipating. For instance, it's going to - you know, there are new rules now when you go to get a driver's license renewed or your car tag renewed. You have to go through a new state verification system that shows that you're a legal resident.

For instance, police officers are very concerned how they're going to be able to keep up with the requirements in this law and whether or not they're going to become some sort of a de facto deportation center because they're required to detain people who they can't verify their status until the federal government takes control of those people. What if the federal government doesn't? Are these people just going to be in jails? And there was no money that came with the law to help local jails pay for this.

The school officials are concerned about what it's going to mean for them. Businesses certainly already - the construction industry, the agriculture industry, trying to have classes and webinars figuring out what does this mean for them? How are they going to go about filling jobs? That people have been leaving the state. The state agriculture commissioner says both legal and illegal workers have left the state because - even before the judge's ruling - because they feared the impact of this law.

MARTIN: And Debbie, finally, we only have about 30 seconds left.

ELLIOTT: Sure.

MARTIN: We know that Alabama has a very deep, complicated and rich civil rights history. What are those civil rights groups, the traditional civil rights leaders in this state, who generally are not Latino but who are African-American? What are they saying about this?

ELLIOTT: You know, some have spoken out against the bill, saying that it brings up some history that, you know, Alabama needs to turn the page on.

MARTIN: Debbie Elliott is NPR national correspondent. She joined us from Orange Beach, Alabama. Allison Neal also was with us. She's the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama and she joined us from her office in Montgomery.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

NEAL: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Sure.

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