Around this time three years ago, America’s Voice and a coalition of other pro-immigration reform groups were part of a major push to roll back Alabama’s HB 56 anti-immigrant law, widely considered to be the harshest in the nation. The law, as it was initially implemented, legalized racial profiling, required K-12 public schools to keep tabs on the legal status of children, threatened to turn off public utilities for immigrant families, punished “Good Samaritans” for transporting or housing immigrants, and attempted to publish a record of undocumented immigrants and their private information in state court, among other things.
Since then, lawsuit after lawsuit from pro-immigration reform advocates, civil rights groups, and others have forced Alabama to almost completely roll back the law, with the state now quietly settling a suit over the public record provision, the last clause to fall. As Karen Tumlin, managing attorney for the National Immigration Law Center, told Buzzfeed’s David Noriega this week in a great recap piece of HB 56 over the years, “What you have now is the state of Alabama coming to terms with the fact that not only was this law bad policy, it was also illegal as a constitutional matter.”
Indeed, in the last few years, the US as a whole has shifted hugely away from punitive anti-immigrant state laws like HB 56 in Alabama and SB 1070 in Arizona. The momentum in state-based initiatives is now completely in the other direction, with legislators now granting driver’s licenses to immigrants and passing in-state tuition for DREAMers. A slew of localities have recently changed the way they cooperate with ICE by refusing to automatically hold immigrants for federal pickup. And new laws styled after Arizona’s and Alabama’s have not cropped up.
The law was guided by the philosophy of “self-deportation,” popular among conservative Republicans — the idea that if you can make their daily life difficult enough, undocumented immigrants will leave on their own.
When the bill passed, one of its sponsors, State Rep. Micky Hammon, proudly said it “attacks every aspect of an illegal alien’s life,” as AL.com reported at the time. As such, Hammon said, “This bill is designed to make it difficult for them to live here so they will deport themselves.”
To that end, HB 56 criminalized nearly every aspect of an undocumented immigrant’s life. It made it illegal for undocumented immigrants to work or to seek work, required police to arrest anyone suspected of being in the country illegally, forced schools to check the immigration status of its students, made it illegal to rent an apartment to an undocumented immigrant, and so forth.
But the law unleashed a flurry of unintended consequences, many of them damaging to the state’s economy or embarrassing to its image. It suffered a backlash from law enforcement, which did not appreciate legislators dictating their priorities, and from two of Alabama’s most powerful business constituencies — agriculture and auto manufacturing — seriously undermining support for the law.
Initially, HB 56 succeeded in driving undocumented immigrants out of the state in droves. This exodus laid bare the rarely acknowledged fact that farms in Alabama, as in most states, depend on cheap labor from undocumented immigrants. Deprived of many of their workers, farmers lashed out against the law, and Republicans in the state started having second thoughts.
Then, in a widely publicized, awkward incident in November of 2011, cops in Alabama stopped a Mercedes Benz executive driving a rental car and were forced, under the new law’s provisions, to arrest him when he couldn’t produce acceptable ID. The executive was driving near Tuscaloosa, where Mercedes Benz has a manufacturing plant — Alabama, like many Southern states, has bent over backward in recent decades to attract foreign automakers by giving them generous tax breaks and other incentives.
Over the next two years, the law was taken apart piece by piece. Alabama settled most of the lawsuits against it, brought both by the Justice Department and by various civil rights groups, in October of 2013. By a combination of these settlements and court decisions, the state agreed to drop or significantly narrow the law’s major components.
Sam Brooke, an attorney for the SPLC, highlighted one of those court decisions —Central Alabama Fair Housing Center v. Magee — which halted the law’s criminalization of renting property to undocumented immigrants. That decision, Brooke told BuzzFeed News, “was fundamental in saying that there likely was racial animus behind the passage of this law.”
By and large, Alabama’s immigration law has died a quiet death. None of the settlements and decisions burying HB 56’s various components have met any real opposition, even from the lawmakers who originally championed the bill.
The law’s opponents say this is because HB 56 proved to be little more than a headache and an embarrassment to Alabama. And even as the House of Representatives is pursuing similarly harsh anti-immigrant bills on the federal level (such as the SAFE act), they also tie the decline of HB 56 to a broader turn away from anti-immigrant legislation around the country on the state and local level.
Tumin, of the NILC, said that similar laws in Georgia, Indiana, Utah, and other states have been scaled back or blocked in recent months, usually in the face of lawsuits like the ones that brought down HB 56.
The outlier, Tumin said, is Arizona, which continues to aggressively defend legal challenges against S.B. 1070, the progenitor of all other anti-immigrant laws around the country.
“It’s telling that you’re not seeing new proposals that target immigrants coming out of statehouses,” Tumin said. “The era of anti-immigrant state policies has subsided.”