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Ruling on Alabama Immigration Law Validates “Papers Please” Aspects of SB1070

When I first heard about the ruling from a federal judge in the Alabama immigration law case, I thought that most of the more egregious aspects of the law were enjoined. Only upon further inspection did I realize that the judge declined to issue a preliminary injunction for some of the most controversial parts.

U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn ruled on Wednesday that Alabama can enforce the law’s requirements for schools to verify students’ immigration status and for police to determine citizenship and status of those they stop, detain or arrest. Police are allowed to arrest anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant during a routine traffic stop, under the law.

In a 115-page opinion, Blackburn wrote that “the United States has not met the requirements for a preliminary injunction” for several of the measures the Justice Department had argued violated the Constitution and usurped the federal government’s authority to set immigration policy.

But Blackburn granted the Obama administration’s request to block certain portions of the law until she makes a final ruling. Those sections include provisions making it a crime to transport or harbor an illegal immigrant, or for an illegal immigrant to look for or perform work. Blackburn also blocked parts of the law that would allow discrimination lawsuits against companies that hire illegal immigrants when they discharge or fail to hire a U.S. citizen and forbid employers from claiming as business tax deductions wages paid to illegal immigrants.

She enjoined enforcement of the part that could get a church in trouble for feeding an undocumented immigrant. But she allowed the signature piece of the law that got Arizona in such high-profile trouble with SB1070, the “papers please” ability for a cop to stop anyone they suspect of being undocumented and check immigration status. This seems like a really wrong ruling, empowering state officials to perform a federal immigration function.

I wonder how much Secure Communities, which forces local law enforcement to pass up fingerprint information to the federal authorities so Homeland Security can check immigration status, will come into play in any appeals process. The argument against a law like Alabama’s is that it turns local law enforcement into a federal immigration official. But if they’re essentially doing that through Secure Communities, it’s harder to argue that Alabama shouldn’t be allowed to skip a step.

Either way, the implications of this are terrifying. I wouldn’t want to drive as a Hispanic in Alabama, because seemingly just forgetting my ID could land me in Mexico. I wouldn’t want do much of anything in Alabama as a Hispanic, because clearly the authorities will have a heightened sensitivity toward me. And this is playing out. Produce is rotting in the fields in Alabama because farmers cannot find the migrant labor to pick the crops.

Regardless of how a federal judge rules this week, Alabama’s new immigration law has already delivered “unintended consequences” across the state, said Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan.

The picking of blueberries, tomatoes and squash largely requires hand labor, McMillan said Monday, and the work is no longer getting done.

McMillan said he recently visited a farmer who has 75 acres of squash in north Jackson County.

“It was just rotting in the fields because he had half the labor,” McMillan told The Huntsville Times editorial board. “That’s a fact. What I’m telling you is what I’ve seen […]

“I wouldn’t plant 75 acres of squash next year,” said McMillan.

Bring your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…

UPDATE: Mary Bauer of the Southern Poverty Law Center said in a statement, “Today is a dark day for Alabama. This decision not only places Alabama on the wrong side of history but also demonstrates that the rights and freedoms so fundamental to our nation and its history can be manipulated by hate and political agendas – at least for a time.”

The coalition of civil rights groups against this, including the SPLC, MALDEF and the ACLU, will appeal. There are also provisions Judge Blackburn kept open that forces public schools to check the immigration status of their students and their parents, and forward that to the authorities.

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David Dayen

David Dayen