Alabama, civil rights groups reach agreement on immigration lawsuit



Gov. Robert Bentley signed the state's immigration bill on June 9, 2011  (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

Gov. Robert Bentley signed the state’s immigration bill on June 9, 2011 (Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

The state has settled long-running lawsuits with the U.S. Department of Justice and a coalition of civil rights groups over the state’s immigration law, known as HB 56.

Under agreements filed in U.S. Northern District Court Tuesday, Alabama will specify that law enforcement can not stop someone “for the purpose of ascertaining that person’s immigration status or because of a belief that the person lacks lawful immigration status.” HB 56 includes a provision that allows law enforcement to detain an individual if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that the person is in the country unlawfully.

Alabama will also pay $350,000 in legal fees for the plaintiffs in the civil rights case.

Provisions of the law already been blocked by courts will remain permanently blocked. Among others, federal judges have blocked provisions that require immigrants to carry documentation with them; ban undocumented aliens from seeking work and require school districts to collect information on the immigration status of students at time of enrollment.

In exchange, the DOJ and three dozen plaintiffs in the civil rights case — represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Immigration Law Center — will dismiss their remaining claims.

In a joint statement, representatives of the ACLU, the SPLC and the NILC called the agreement a victory.

“Today’s settlement should remind legislators in both Montgomery and Washington that a person’s constitutional rights may not be legislated away,” said Linton Joaquin, general counsel of the National Immigration Law Center. “Supporters of attempts to nationalize racial profiling policies such as Alabama’s HB 56 should be warned: We will fight these efforts at the Capitol, and, if necessary, in the courtroom.”

“We warned the legislature when they were debating HB 56 that if they passed this draconian law, we would sue in court and win,” said Kristi Graunke, senior staff supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “That we have done. Now it is time for our state lawmakers to repeal the remnants of HB 56, and for our congressional delegation to support meaningful immigration reform that will fix our broken system.”

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said in a statement that his office had “vigorously defended” the law in federal courts.

“The courts have upheld most of the Act but have also made clear that some provisions are invalid,” the statement said. “We have a duty to follow the law as set forth by the courts. The filings made today inform the trial court of which claims must be dismissed and which provisions our of law cannot be enforced because of the Supreme Court’s and Eleventh Circuit’s rulings. It is up to Washington to fulfill its responsibility to enforce the country’s immigration laws.”

A request for comment from the Department of Justice Tuesday afternoon was not immediately returned.

HB 56, passed in 2011, aimed at criminalizing many aspects of an undocumented immigrant’s life. As initially passed, the law made it a state crime to be an undocumented alien in the state of Alabama; made contracts with undocumented aliens void; allowed law enforcement to detain those they had “reasonable suspicion” of being in the country unlawfully; banned undocumented aliens from obtaining business licenses; required state businesses to enroll in E-Verify and required schools to collect information on the immigration status of students at the time of enrollment. The law also provided civil penalties for businesses found to knowingly employ undocumented immigrants.

The plaintiffs filed suit a little over a month after Gov. Robert Bentley signed the law on June 9, 2011, saying the provisions of HB 56 conflicted with the federal government’s immigration enforcement and encouraged racial profiling. In August, 2011, the U.S. Justice Department filed a separate suit against HB 56, arguing that the state’s law was pre-empted by federal statutes.

The law was modeled closely on a law passed in Arizona in 2010. In June of 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down many provisions of the Arizona law; the justices allowed the Arizona law’s “reasonable suspicion” provision to stand, but said that they would be open to determining legal challenges over the provision. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s lead, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals later that summer blocked other provisions of HB 56. Graunke said in a telephone interview Tuesday that the settlement “closely tracks” the 11th Circuit decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court last April refused to hear an appeal of the 11th Circuit’s decision on the Alabama law.

The courts upheld the law’s ban on business licenses and a provision that prevents undocumented aliens from enrolling in post-secondary schools in the state. The E-Verify provision, which had been upheld in a separate case, was not challenged under the law.

– posted by Brian Lyman

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