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Alabama Immigration Law’s (HB 56) “No Contracts” Provision May Be Illegal Under State Constitution

by Van Le on 10/26/2011 at 1:37pm

alabama state constitutionMemo to the Alabama state legislature: if you’re going to be so zealously anti-immigrant that you pass a law which spawns a civil rights and humanitarian crisis, the least you might do is make sure it’s constitutional.

That’s the latest word in the HB 56 Alabama immigration law saga, after Alabama Circuit Judge Scott Vowell ruled in an opinion yesterday that a “no contracts” provision in the HB 56 law might in fact be illegal under Alabama’s own state constitution.

See, HB 56 mandates that “[no] court of this state shall enforce the terms of, or otherwise regard as valid, any contract between a party and an alien unlawfully present in the United States.”  That is, legal contracts are no longer legally binding when one or more parties is an undocumented immigrant – one justification for why the undocumented are no longer allowed to hold jobs, rent housing, or buy public utilities in the state.

Unfortunately, as Judge Vowell pointed out yesterday, such a measure appears to be prohibited by the Alabama state constitution – a document which is, by the way, the longest state constitution in the nation and 12 times longer than most others states’ counterparts.  The Alabama state constitution reads:

There can be no law of this state impairing the obligation of contracts by destroying or impairing the remedy for their enforcement; and the legislature shall have no power to revive any right or remedy which may have become barred by lapse of time, or by any statute of this state. After suit has been commenced on any cause of action, the legislature shall have no power to take away such cause of action, or destroy any existing defense to such suit.

Whoops?  Apparently, state officials will not only have to dedicate the time and resources to defend this terrible law in federal court (against Department of Justice attorneys who say HB 56 preempts the supremacy clause and the federal government’s right to regulate immigration) – they’ll also have to defend the law at home, in state courts as individual cases involving the contracts provision among others are brought forward.

Those who have seen first-hand the chaos that HB 56 has wreaked, of course, are hardly sorry.  We only wish the state legislators who passed the law had stopped to consider the many, many drawbacks of its extremist provisions before they’d acted.  But as Joey Kennedy wrote yesterday in a Birmingham News piece entitled “Alabama’s cruddy immigration law can’t catch a break, and thank goodness for that!” – that might be too much to ask where Alabama is concerned:

This is what happens when the Legislature passes cruddy, hot-button, knee-jerk bills instead of doing a little homework to realize what’s going to work best and make that the law. For too many of our leaders, being self-righteously mean is much more fun.

We know the law encourages profiling. We know it has caused problems in the farming and construction industries. We know it takes waiting in long lines for hours to renew a car tag. We know it’s splitting up families and causing even legal immigrants to flee Alabama because they don’t want to be harassed. Because of this law, even to check out a book at a Shelby County public library, a patron must prove his citizenship.

The immigration law is a bust. A good Legislature would realize its mistake and make it right. I’m not going to hold my breath; it’s pretty clear on this issue what kind of Legislature we have.

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