Appeals court curtails Alabama immigration law, for now

A US appeals court temporarily blocked two requirements of the tough Alabama immigration law: one that schools check new students' immigration status and one that immigrants carry special ID.

Tamika Moore//The Birmingham News/AP
People voice their concerns about the Alabama HB56 law at a town hall meeting at Glen Iris Elementary School in Birmingham, Ala Thursday. In a blow to Alabama's strict immigration law, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that public schools must stop checking the immigration status of students and that police cannot charge immigrants who are unable to prove their citizenship.

Two of the most controversial aspects of Alabama’s stringent new immigration law were temporarily blocked Friday by the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

For now, public schools are no longer required to check the immigration status of students enrolling for the first time in the state. And immigrants cannot be required to carry documents that prove their legal status.

The appeals court is expected to hear full arguments challenging the law in late November. But the challengers, including the US Department of Justice and a coalition of civil rights groups, are encouraged by Friday's injunction because it indicates they may have a strong chance of prevailing on those two aspects of Alabama's law, at least.

The ins and outs of the appeals process, however, are not likely to have much practical impact on families who have already fled schools, or fled the state altogether, out of fears about how the law will be enforced.

News reports indicate that hundreds of Latino students were absent from school earlier this month after a lower-court judge ruled that the school immigration checks could go forward. Other aspects of Alabama's law also appear to have scared away many agricultural workers.

It had “a strong chilling effect in terms of parents being willing to enroll their children in schools,” says Shiu-Ming Cheer, an attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, one of the groups that challenged the Alabama law.

At Crossville Elementary School, with a 65 percent Hispanic population, about 200 of the 900 students didn’t show up for school when the law first went into effect, says Principal Ed Burke.

The court action Friday was a good one, he says, because “there was too much junk” in the law. People were so confused that some families thought a school resource officer would be showing up at their doors to take their children into custody.

State education officials and local organizations have tried to spread the word that the school provision applies only to new students and exists simply to report the numbers of undocumented students to the state. Indeed, many students who originally disappeared from Crossville Elementary have come back to school, Mr. Burke says. Only about 20 remain absent.

Still, the school portion of the law is “standing on the shakiest constitutional grounds,” says Prof. Deep Gulasekaram, an assistant professor at Santa Clara University School of Law in California.

Ultimately, the Alabama law could be challenged in the US Supreme Court, which would have to consider its own 1982 Plyler v. Doe decision affirming the rights of undocumented children to have a free public education.

Aside from the harm it would cause children to be uneducated, Mr. Gulasekaram says, it wouldn’t benefit society if illegal immigrants feared sending their children to school, leading to a “permanent underclass of people.”

The Republican-controlled Alabama Legislature passed the immigration law earlier this year. A US district judge prevented some of it from going into effect, and now the appeals court has blocked some of the remaining portions. Those legal setbacks are not the final word, however, and Gov. Robert Bentley (R) on Friday repeated his vow "to fight to see this law upheld."

“As I have said on many occasions, if the federal government had done its job by enforcing its own immigration laws, we wouldn't be here today," he said in a statement. "Unfortunately, by failing to do its job, the federal government has left the problem of dealing with illegal immigration to the states. Alabama needed a tough law against illegal immigration. We now have one."

Provisions of the law that remain in effect allow people to be detained when there’s a reasonable suspicion that they are undocumented or when they lack proof of a driver’s license. State and local agencies are also still prohibited from entering into contracts with the undocumented.

Detainment based on “reasonable suspicion” that someone is in the US illegally “has opened the door for racial profiling,” says Isabel Rubio, executive director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama in Birmingham. While she’s relieved that Friday’s injunction blocks some portions of the law, she says the law has already led to “a state of chaos here. It’s a crisis.”

Staff writer Patrik Jonsson contributed to this article from Crossville, Ala.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.