Future of Anti-Immigrant State Laws on the Line for 2012

 PHOENIX, Ariz.—The year 2011 started out as a tough year for immigrants, with five states enacting harsh anti-immigration legislation modeled after Arizona’s SB 1070. But one by one, the key provisions of each of these laws – like the Arizona law that inspired them – have been blocked by federal judges. 

Now the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal from Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to the temporary stay of her state’s law. The fate of SB 1070 – and possibly those of the copycat laws it inspired in Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Indiana and Utah – hangs in the balance.

A showdown in 2012 between Arizona and the federal government over SB 1070 may provide crucial guidance for other federal courts on newer state laws that are moving through the system.

If Arizona’s law is found to be unconstitutional, it could have a chilling effect on other state legislatures that were looking to follow Arizona’s and Alabama’s lead. But even without such a decision, conservative politicians may not be so quick to enact their own copycat laws. That’s because the negative economic legacy of these laws in 2011 in states like Alabama, and the political price paid by their supporters in Arizona, could make conservative politicians think twice before enacting similar laws in the coming year.

Alabama’s “man made disaster”

Alabama’s experience with the immigration law it passed in 2011, which was seen as the harshest in the country, may be the most revealing about the consequences of a state taking immigration issues into its own hands.

A community activist in Birmingham, Ala., Helen Rivas described the impact of HB 56 earlier this year as a “man-made disaster.” 

Portions of Alabama’s immigration law were enjoined, including one that required school officials to keep track of the immigration status of students. But one crucial provision that had been blocked in Arizona’s SB 1070, was allowed to take effect in Alabama, requiring local police to arrest and investigate people in the country without legal documents.

The consequences of the bill for U.S. citizens have caused the state to reconsider some aspects of the law. But Republican Gov. Robert Bentley has stated that he opposes a complete repeal of the law, which continues to face a constitutional challenge by the Justice Department.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange suggested changes to the legislation in a memo from Dec. 1. "My goals are to (1) make the law easier to defend in court; (2) assist law enforcement in implementation; and (3) remove burdens on law abiding citizens. All while not weakening the law," he wrote.

HB 56 created an immediate shortage of workers for the agricultural industry. It also revealed what some called an “inconvenient truth”: the low wages and difficult conditions of the jobs traditionally taken by undocumented immigrants.

“Under the provisions of this law that are currently in effect, undocumented persons are unable to interact with the government—in any way and for any purpose,” said Mary Bauer, legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center during testimony in front of the Birmingham City Council Chambers. “It has turned a significant class of people, effectively, into legal non-persons, subjecting them to a kind of legal exile. It has destroyed lives, ripped apart families, devastated communities, and left our economy in shatters.”

Passage of HB 56 didn’t come without political consequences either. The sponsor of the law, Republican Sen. Scott Beason, was ousted as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee last Nov. 15. 

But perhaps the most explicit example of political backslash ensued in Arizona.

Arizona’s political backslash

The recall of SB 1070’s author and president of the Senate, Republican Russell Pearce, reverberated across the nation as a virtual punch in the face to the state’s anti-immigrant legislation.

Pearce lost in a special recall election to Republican Jerry Lewis, who was seen as taking a less harsh stance on immigration issues.

The success of the recall campaign, led by the Citizens for a Better Arizona, was due to the diversity of its political and community membership. Another important element was that the campaign did not focus on the issue of immigration; it focused on Pearce’s performance as a senator and what the group called his “extremist” political views. 

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio a longtime supporter of Pearce’s immigration laws, also took a blow in 2011.

After a four-year investigation, the Department of Justice determined that Arpaio’s agency was engaged in a pattern and practice of racial profiling against Latinos.

In a separate lawsuit, federal judge Murray Snow ordered Arpaio’s deputies to stop detaining people when the only cause is the suspicion that they’re in the country illegally and no other crime was committed. 

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