Appeals Court Blocks Portions of Controversial Alabama Immigration Law

A federal court of appeals blocked some parts of Alabama’s controversial new immigration law last week, but much of the law remains in effect. While this law only applies in the state of Alabama, it has influenced lawmakers and immigration reformers all over the country. Alabama’s law pits the federal government, which has authority over immigration matters under the U.S. Constitution, against a state government seeking its own reform. The outcome of this dispute, and the enactment and enforcement of the Alabama law, will have nationwide impact on immigration matters.

The law affects many aspects of government operations, including law enforcement, education, and the civil court system. It also saddles Alabama law enforcement with a duty to check people’s immigration statuses, and at times to determine whether a person is present in the United States legally. As any immigration attorney knows, this is a difficult determination to make, and law enforcement without specialized training in immigration laws may not be in the best position to do so. The Obama administration took Alabama to court to challenge its legal ability to legislate immigration matters, arguing that the Constitution grants that power exclusively to the federal government. A ruling from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta last week gave partial victories to each side of the dispute.

The court’s ruling blocks some of the law’s more controversial provisions, but leaves many more in place. The court will review the constitutional questions presented in the case and make a more thorough ruling later. The court blocked the section requiring state officials to check the immigration status of public school students. It also blocked a provision creating a misdemeanor offense for immigrants who willfully fail “to complete or carry an alien registration card,” something critics described as allowing law enforcement to demand papers from people they suspect of being undocumented, with few guidelines on how to make that determination.

Provisions of the law remaining in force include one that requires law enforcement, during lawful stops or arrests, to try to determine a person’s immigration status if they suspect the person is undocumented. Another provision still in force bars state courts from enforcing contracts that involve undocumented immigrants, and another makes it a felony for undocumented immigrants to enter into “business transactions” in the state. This last provision may make it illegal for someone to apply for a driver’s license or even to hook up utility services.

Alabama’s law follows another controversial immigration law passed in Arizona last year. Legislators in many states, including both Ohio and Michigan, have expressed interest in modeling legislation on both Arizona and Alabama’s statutes. Michigan legislators introduced a similar bill earlier this year. The Alabama law, as well as the Arizona law that preceded it, has the potential to create problems for lawful immigrants and visa holders who do not keep their documentation handy, or for employers who may have to account for employees’ immigration status. While some of the more problematic sections may not make it through the current litigation, the law may end up impacting immigration issues around the country.

Ohio immigration visa lawyer Gus Shihab helps people seeking to visit or immigrate to the United States in understanding the often complex processes involved. For a free and confidential consultation, contact him through his website or at (800) 625-3404.

Web Resources

Full text of Alabama’s HB 56 (PDF)

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Immigration Outlook for 2011: Congressional Overhaul Versus Strict Enforcement, Immigration Visa Lawyer Blog, February 20, 2011
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The Most Appalling and Unconstitutional Aspects of Arizona’s SB1070 Blocked by Federal Court, Immigration Visa Lawyer Blog, July 31, 2010