Is Alabama's new illegal immigration law really the toughest?

States now appear to be vying for the title of toughest law against illegal immigration. Alabama's is probably the broadest, but not the toughest in every particular.

Mickey Welsh/Montgomery Advertiser/AP
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley speaks before signing into law what critics and supporters are calling the strongest bill in the nation cracking down on illegal immigration on June 9 at the state Capitol in Montgomery, Ala.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) signed an immigration bill Thursday, which among other things bars illegal immigrants from public colleges and universities, requires businesses to check the legal status of their employees, and punishes landlords who knowingly rent to illegal immigrants.

Both sides of the debate say it’s the toughest illegal immigration law in the country. But in an age when both tough-on-immigration lawmakers and the immigrant-rights activists who oppose them routinely claim a law is “the toughest” in the land, how does Alabama’s HB 56 stack up?

“There’s a certain competitiveness in states to sound the most strict,” says Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute office at the New York University School of Law. “It’s hard to say at the end of the day which is.”

Depending on the issue, other states have immigration laws tougher than Alabama’s, says Mr. Chishti, such as Mississippi's 2008 law that makes working in the state illegally a felony.

But Alabama’s 72-page law covers more ground than even Arizona’s SB 1070, the sweeping immigration law passed last year. That breadth makes it “one of most strict in the country,” says Chishti. It borrows ideas from a Fremont, Neb., law which penalizes landlords who knowingly rent to illegal immigrants, and from a South Carolina law barring illegal immigrants from attending public universities.

Alabama’s law copies many of SB 1070’s provisions, including a measure requiring law enforcement officers to inquire the immigration status of people they suspect of being in the country illegally, though that part of the Arizona law faces challenges in federal court.

Like a provision in SB 1070 the Supreme Court upheld last month, the Alabama law requires employers to run employee names through E-Verify, a federal citizenship and immigration registry. A business faces a short suspension of its license if found to have hired an illegal immigrant. If a business is found to have hired an illegal immigrant a second time, it would lose its license permanently.

In some instances, the Alabama law goes further than SB 1070. It bars businesses from taking tax deductions on the wages it pays illegal immigrants and requires elementary and secondary schools to keep data on the immigration status of its students. Landlords can also be penalized for knowingly renting to illegal immigrants.

The provision barring illegal immigrants from attending public colleges and universities also goes further than Arizona's law, which prevents illegal immigrants from enjoying in-state tuition.

But in this instance, the strict-sounding provision is not as tough as it sounds. The only means of enforcing the ban are voluntary. The law merely states that post-secondary administrators “may seek verification” of a student’s immigration status. It does not mandate they do so and provides no penalties for schools that do not comply.

From a political standpoint, having a tough-sounding provision may be as useful to lawmakers as one that actually is tough.

“This whole notion of everyone trying to be tough is a difficult thing to gauge, but the need to make that political statement may be more important than the expressed provisions of the law,” says Chishti.

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