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Alabama is still paying for its immigration crackdown

Alabama's HB 56, the toughest anti-immigration law in the nation, is almost entirely dead. But the state is still settling lawsuits over long gone provisions.
Praxedis Teran, left and Angel Coronilla, in their mobile home in Foley, Ala. on Oct. 7, 2011, shortly after Alabama passed one of the strictest immigration laws in the country.
Praxedis Teran, left and Angel Coronilla, in their mobile home in Foley, Ala. on Oct. 7, 2011, shortly after Alabama passed one of the strictest immigration laws in the country.

HB 56, Alabama’s toughest-in-the-nation immigration law, is all but dead, but it’s still costing taxpayers money to bury it.

The state settled a lawsuit with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) this week over a provision that barred undocumented immigrants from renewing their mobile home registration. Under the agreement, Alabama will pay SPLC $230,000 to cover the cost of the group's legal fees. The decision comes less than a year after Alabama ponied up another $350,000 to pay their opponent’s legal fees and settle a separate lawsuit that also threw out large portions of the law. 

Passed in 2011, Alabama’s HB 56 was designed to force undocumented immigrants, many of whom came to the state in recent years for work in agriculture and meatpacking, to leave by blocking their ability to work, do business with the state, and even accept a ride in a car.

While it initially caused a panic among immigrant communities, judges ended up throwing out most of its toughest provisions while public officials found others so unworkable that they stripped them out in later bills themselves. 

The most recent SPLC case concerned mobile homes. In Alabama, mobile home residents need to register with the government each year and pay an annual fee or face a misdemeanor penalty. But HB 56 also made it a felony to interact with state and county government officials without proving one’s immigration status. 

“They were caught in a classic catch-22,” Sam Brooke, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, told msnbc. “They either were going to commit a class-C misdemeanor by living in their homes or get caught with a class-C felony trying to register their mobile homes.”

SPLC sued, arguing the provision violated the Fair Housing Act. In 2011, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction halting the provision, in part because the debate over the law’s passage was “laced with derogatory comments about Hispanics.” The provision related to mobile homes is no longer even on the books: In 2012, Alabama’s state legislature dramatically narrowed the law’s ban on interactions between public officials and undocumented immigrants, partly because its overly broad wording created a host of problems for native-born residents who now had to prove their citizenship to obtain basic services.

Alabama’s HB 56 has mostly been dismantled at this point, but its ongoing demise is highly relevant to the current immigration debate in Congress. 

While opponents of passing reform generally favor a more vigorous attempt to identify and deport immigrants, Alabama’s experience shows that their approach is unworkable absent new federal laws. Some states are also going the opposite route by making it easier for undocumented immigrants to obtain a drivers license, go to college, or earn a professional license, creating an inconsistent patchwork of pro- and anti-immigrant legal policies. But those laws are no substitute for a federal law that provides a path to legal status either.

Like it or not, the only definitive way to address immigration is through Congress.