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Portions of Alabama's strict immigration law will remain in force until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on its predecessor, the Arizona statue that ignited a national firestorm in the debate over illegal immigration.
A panel of three judges from an Atlanta federal appeals court decided Thursday to put off action on lawsuits against measures in Alabama and Georgia. Oral arguments are set for April 25 before the Supreme Court over the constitutionality of Arizona's enforcement policy.
Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Utah and Indiana have passed legislation modeled on Arizona's. The Justice Department has sued to block all the laws, arguing that the role of enforcement belongs solely to the federal government. Human-rights and immigrant-advocacy groups have filed separate suits claiming the laws violate individuals' civil rights.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the Arizona law by the end of its term this summer; the decision could set precedents for lower courts handling similar cases. A Supreme Court ruling could effectively settle, at least for a time, the highly charged dispute between states and the federal government over immigration enforcement.
Regardless of the outcome, advocates on both sides say they look forward to seeing the roles of federal and local authorities clarified, particularly given the inability of Congress to pass an overhaul of immigration laws.
"We hope that folks in Washington will recognize that there is a real crisis that they helped create, and it's their lack of leadership that has gotten us to this point," says Sam Brooke, the lead attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center's lawsuit against the Alabama law.
"These are not immigration bills that are creating new laws," says Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports stricter immigration measures. "These are states telling law enforcement 'We're encouraging you to enforce laws already on the books.' Why? Because these are reactions to inaction in Washington and an abject failure to reinforce the borders."
A New Lightning Rod
That means for at least the next several months, Alabama is allowed to continue enforcing measures regarded as the nation's toughest on illegal immigrants.
Once Alabama passed its law last year, it supplanted Arizona as the new lightning rod for controversial enforcement policies. Alabama's law also became a model for bills working through the legislatures in Mississippi and Missouri.
A new report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center claims scores of Latinos in Alabama have been subjected to discrimination since the law took effect. Among the allegations the report identified as egregious: a clinic that refused to treat a child here illegally; an illegal day laborer denied payment for her work; and a family whose home water supply was discontinued.
The law "has given a nod and a wink to the worst prejudices harbored by some residents," the report's writer, Mary Bauer, told reporters this week. "If lawmakers are unwilling to repeal [it], knowing this is the type of misery they have created, we can only assume they intended to inflict this cruelty all along."
Despite the concerns of some immigrant advocates, defenders of the enforcement laws say they aren't aimed at imprisoning or deporting illegal immigrants. They largely are designed to drive illegal immigrants out of these states through "self-deportation," as GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has called it.
"It's attrition through enforcement," says Dane, who defends the approach as the better alternative to other extremes. "If you dry up the incentives for coming here, you will have fewer people coming. It's preferable to mass deportation, which no one thinks is possible. It's also preferable to mass amnesty."
The Alabama law so far appears to be having its intended effect. Immigrant advocates say the law has prompted thousands of Hispanics, those in the U.S. legally and illegally, to flee the state out of fear.
Not Giving Ground
As other state laws do, Alabama's law directs police to check the immigration status of people during arrests or encounters such as traffic stops. Alabama goes further by requiring individuals to carry proof of legal status at all times. It also prohibits illegal immigrants from entering contracts or engaging in formal transactions with state agencies, such as obtaining a driver's license or applying for permits.
Two of the law's harsher provisions have been blocked by a federal district court: a requirement that public schools collect the immigration status of students and a prohibition on "harboring," making it a felony for anyone to aid an illegal immigrant, even unknowingly.
Opponents have demanded the repeal of the law, but a repeal bill being drafted by Democratic state Sen. Bill Beasley isn't likely to pass in a chamber controlled by Republicans who overwhelmingly support the law.
GOP legislative leaders say that while they won't make any significant changes to enforcement, they are working to ease the law's requirements on employers, who have complained of now having to verify the legal status of their workers.
Already in this legislative session, one revision has passed that establishes military credentials as acceptable proof of identification, particularly in the event a person is questioned by police.
"It's a strong law, it's a good law, and most Alabamians are pleased with the fact that there is finally a law to crack down on immigration and make sure those working and living in Alabama are doing so legally," says Todd Stacy, a spokesman for Republican state House Speaker Mike Hubbard. "The focus is clearing up misconceptions, correcting any portions that might be vague and make it work more efficiently."
It may not be enough for some farmers and food-processing companies, which rely heavily on Latino employees. They say productivity has declined because many of their workers have stopped showing up. Those business owners worry that the workers have gone into hiding or left the state.
A study by a professor at the University of Alabama of the law's potential economic impact estimated that departures of as many as 80,000 illegal immigrants could cost the state and local governments some $93 million a year in lost sales tax revenue. Republican lawmakers have roundly rejected those findings as inaccurate.
Correction: March 9, 2012 12:00 am — A previous version of this story said that the departures of illegal immigrants from Alabama could cost the state nearly $11 billion in sales tax revenue, according to a study. In fact, the study says it could cost nearly $11 billion in lost GDP. The study estimates that the state could lose some $93 million in sales tax revenue.