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How America's harshest immigration law failed

Alabama tried to kick out its undocumented immigrants with the harshest law in the country. Two year's later, the law's in ruins and the immigrants remain.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

Alabama tried to kick out its undocumented immigrants with the harshest law in the country. Two year's later, the law's in ruins and the immigrants remain.

“Illegal is illegal.” With that rallying cry, Alabama passed HB 56 in 2011, the harshest state immigration law in the country.

The lead sponsor of the bill boasted to state representatives that the law “attacks every aspect of an illegal alien’s life.” Among its key provisions: landlords were banned from renting homes to undocumented immigrants, children had to rat out their parents to school principals, police were required to arrest suspected immigration violators. Even giving unauthorized immigrants a ride became a crime.

The vast scope of the law turned Alabama into the first major test for the anti-immigration movement. If self-deportation didn’t work there, it’s hard to imagine where it could. Early reports suggested success: undocumented immigrants appeared to flee Alabama en masse. But two years later, HB 56 is in ruins. Its most far-reaching elements have proved unconstitutional, unworkable, or politically unsustainable. Elected officials, social workers, clergy, activists, and residents say an initial immigrant evacuation that roiled their communities ended long ago. Many who fled have returned to their old homes.

Now Alabama is back where it started, waiting for a solution from Washington that may never come.

Photo by Carolyn Drake/Panos for MSNBC

Worker and chickens a poultry farm in Asbury, Ala. 

When HB 56 was passed, Albertville—where the booming poultry industry had attracted thousands of immigrants from Mexico and Central America—quickly became the national face of the crackdown. From 2000 to 2010, the number of unauthorized immigrants in Alabama jumped from an estimated 25,000 to 120,000, as migrants flocked to jobs in agriculture, meatpacking, and construction.

Supporters of Alabama’s law argued it was necessary because Congress had repeatedly failed to pass a workable immigration policy of its own. “The illegals in this country are ripping us off,” state representative Kerry Rich, who represents Albertville, told reporters the day HB 56 passed. “If we wait for the federal government to put this fire out, our house is going to burn down.”

That concern drove Alabama to pass the nation’s toughest legislation but it is not alone in its desire to stem the flow of undocumented workers. Arizona, Georgia, and South Carolina have all passed similar laws over the last three years and legislatures around the country are debating more immigration-related bills.

If Congress once again fails to pass reform, more states will be tempted to fill the void with measures aimed at either integrating their immigrant communities or kicking them out. But as Alabama’s bitter experiment confirms, a go-it-alone approach may be no substitute for a federal solution. 

Car Crash

It took just six weeks after HB 56 went into effect for state legislators to start having second thoughts about their actions.

On November 16, 2011, police in Tuscaloosa stopped a driver for not having the proper tag on his rental car. Normally, this would have been a minor citation. But the driver did not have a license on him, only a German ID card, and that triggered what was supposed to be HB 56’s most powerful weapon against illegal immigration. Under the law, police were now required to arrest the man, haul him to court, and detain him until federal immigration authorities determined his fate, no matter how long that took.

Photo by Carolyn Drake/Panos for MSNBC

Along the road from Boaz to Albertville, Ale.

As it turned out, the driver was an executive at Mercedes-Benz. The European car giant was one of several foreign auto companies in the state whose plants provide thousands of much-needed jobs. 

The incident was soon followed by another traffic arrest involving a Japanese Honda worker. Together, it sparked an outcry from the business community, which feared companies would pull out of the state. Pouring salt on the wound, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran an editorial inviting Mercedes to move their operations to the “Show-Me State” instead of the “Show me your papers” state.

More unintended consequences emerged, this time from the religious community. Churches complained the law’s ban on providing aid to undocumented immigrants could criminalize everything from soup kitchens to Spanish-language Sunday services.

“They were going to change Bible school into border patrol,” Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, told msnbc. “We had fewer Spanish-speaking congregants coming to our organization for help.”

At courthouses, simple tasks like renewing one’s vehicle tags now required proof of legal status, which generated long lines for citizens and non-citizens alike. Utilities were unsure whether they needed to cut off service to residents who couldn’t prove citizenship.

“People couldn’t get power or water, it was crazy,” Jeremy Love, an immigration attorney in Birmingham, recalled. “It got resolved, but it took pressure. I’d call managers and tell them it was a civil rights violation.”

County attorneys even questioned whether residents needed papers to use their public swimming pool – an uncomfortable prospect in a state still haunted by the legacy of segregation.


When lawmakers first passed HB 56, they did so despite concerns that police may refuse to enforce the new law.

A number of police chiefs and sheriffs had strongly opposed the must-arrest provisions because they lacked the manpower to carry them out.  Small town departments with just a few officers on staff were suddenly expected to devote hours of work to individual traffic stops that used to take 20 minutes to resolve. The departments also had to pay to keep suspected undocumented immigrants in jail while federal authorities looked into each case.

Photo by Carolyn Drake/Panos for MSNBC

Parishioners at Chapel of the Holy Cross Capilla de la Santa Cruz church in Albertville. There are three official masses on the weekend. The 750 seats in the church are usually filled, with people spilling out into the lobby, the congregation is almost entirely Latino.

“I have a problem fundamentally with placing someone in jail over a traffic citation,” Brian Stillwell, chief of police in immigrant-heavy Clanton, told msnbc. He recalled one particularly frustrating instance in which he was forced to detain a nursing mother in a holding cell over a minor auto violation.

Doug Pollard, Albertville’s muscle-bound and mustachioed police chief, actually saw some positives in the new law when it passed. In recent years, buses had been caught in the area dropping off dozens of undocumented workers from Mexico and he found it easier now to coordinate with Immigration and Customs to resolve the cases.

But he quickly faced a new problem: Albertville’s Hispanic community stopped talking to the police – about anything.

“If they had a crime committed against them they used to come to us,” Pollard said. “Then this new law came out and they got scared. ” 

Nothing in the law demanded police check the legal status of crime victims or witnesses, a fact Pollard desperately relayed to residents in media appearances, church meetings, and town halls. In fact, the federal government offers temporary visas to crime victims to encourage them to talk. But he couldn’t break the fear. Some residents started carrying “rights cards” stating their intention to remain silent, which they’d hand to officers as soon as they were stopped.

Love, the immigration attorney, said he had clients who were warned, incorrectly by police, that they’d have to reveal their legal status to report a crime. Clanton police officer Neil Fetner, who became the town’s unofficial expert on the law, said he frequently fielded calls from other departments confused by the requirements. 

“There were a lot of false interpretations of the law – and then it would change or the courts would rule again,” Fetner said. “For a while it was memorandum city.”

The Law Shrinks

Politicians, tired of complaints from business, police, religious leaders and more, quickly called for changes.

“I’ve learned in life that if you make a mistake, you should be man enough to admit it,” Republican state senator Gerald Dial, who voted for the law, said shortly after the Mercedes arrest.  

But fixing it meant backtracking on one of the central pillars of the law. Politicians were so eager to arrest undocumented immigrants that they included a provision empowering citizens to sue individual officers caught shirking their enforcement duties.

Photo by Carolyn Drake/Panos for MSNBC

A Pentecostal church service on Main Street in Albertville that caters primarily to the Latino immigrants.

Seven months after the law went into effect, the state legislature passed a round of revisions. No longer were police required to arrest people for failing to produce a license and state residents could no longer sue them as easily. The new law also weakened requirements that residents show proof of legal status when dealing with the state, ending the mass confusion that had roiled state utility companies, courthouses, and other public offices.

By this point, however, lawsuits by the Justice Department, civil rights groups, and Alabama churches were already blocking large chunks of the remaining law.

In October 2011, less than two weeks after a judge let HB 56 go into effect, a federal appeals court temporarily halted its requirement that schools ask about students’ legal status – a prime driver of the initial panic. Meanwhile, Arizona’s SB 1070, the model for Alabama’s law, wound it’s way to the Supreme Court, where justices blocked police from detaining people just because they suspected they were undocumented, one of several key provisions they struck down.

In an effective act of surrender, Alabama settled its various lawsuits in October 2013 and coughed up $350,000 to cover their opponents’ legal bills. The rulings that forced their hand created precedents that will foil similar laws even faster should they arise.

“Alabama illustrated that illegal immigrants will respond to changed incentives,” Mark Krikorian, Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies and a backer of HB 56, told msnbc. “But states can’t follow through on those changes if the federal government is actively fighting them.”

Still Here

For Alabama’s immigrant communities, the early days of HB 56 were a harrowing experience.

“It was like a disease,” Jose Contreras, who owns a Hispanic grocery store in Albertville, recalled. “Everyone was panicking and leaving.”

But as provision after provision fell, it became clear that the original goal of the law – to expel the state’s undocumented immigrants – was not going to happen.

Photo by Carolyn Drake/Panos for MSNBC

The end of the day at Albertville Middle School. Many students were taken out of school when Alabama’s immigration laws were passed.

Interviews with a wide variety of groups, from residents, to advocates on the ground, elected officials to church leaders, suggest that the initial exodus of immigrants after HB 56 took effect was short lived.

“When it first went effect, people were afraid to go outside,” said Father Tim Pfander, whose St. William Catholic Church attracts hundreds of Latino worshippers. “Today, I think they’ve seen how it’s enforced and are carrying on with the laws.”

Few metrics can capture how the changes have impacted the community. But in Albertville, officials noted that the size and demographic breakdown of the town’s public school classes are mostly similar to what they were before HB 56. The story is similar statewide.

According to Alabama’s education department, the number of Hispanic students rose last year even as the overall student population declined. That wasn’t the plan. Proponents of the law had wanted to decrease the Spanish-speaking population, complaining that immigrant children were dragging down the school system. 

While the restrictions eased over time, the initial passage of the law caused enough hardship to scar the immigrant community. Many recalled police roadblocks around their neighborhoods and said they adjusted their schedules to avoid unnecessary car trips. Some reported verbal abuse from strangers telling them to go home to Mexico. Longtime residents deferred opportunities for fear of the new law’s consequences.

“My daughter’s American and she had a scholarship to go to a state university, but we couldn’t let her go and she lost it,” said Rebecca Maciel, who moved to Alabama 17 years ago with her husband. “If they picked us up who would take care of her siblings?”

Vincente Gonzales blamed the law for forcing his wife out of a job after her employer cracked down on undocumented hires. Unable to work his usual construction jobs due to failing kidneys, Gonzales said his son also deferred acceptance at a state university to help support the family. 

Photo by Carolyn Drake/Panos for MSNBC

Yuri Diaz from Mexico wakes up her children to get them ready for school at 6:30 am. Her kids were born in Albertville.

But after 18 years on U.S. soil, he laughed when asked whether he’d consider moving back to Mexico.

“Our lives are here already,” Gonzales said. “Besides, Hispanics have a fighting heart.”

 Despite their difficulties, immigrants said their primary motive for staying was the hope that their children, many of whom were born in Alabama and have thick southern accents to prove it, would find success.

“My daughters are 7 and 4 and they ask why we don’t leave if they treat us so badly,” Natividad Gonzalez, an activist with the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, said in an interview. “All I can say is: ‘This is your home.’ They’re what motived me to stay, because I know they’re protected. Maybe not me, maybe not my husband, but they are.”

By contrast, their old hometowns in Mexico are not only economically stagnant, but dangerous enough that they almost consider themselves refugees. Many come from cities plagued by drug violence, and they fear their extended time in America would make them obvious kidnapping targets.

 “I’d only go there to die,” Gonzales said.                                                                                                      

The Wave Passes

HB 56’s authors have defended the remaining law’s value, pointing to certain provisions that remained intact including a requirement that companies check new hires’ legal status against a federal database. They credit HB 56 with a drop in unemployment in recent years, although economists in the state argue that it’s unrelated. Police can still check the immigration status of people they pull over even though they are limited in their ability to detain them.

Among state and local officials, the anti-immigration fever that led to the law’s passage has substantially subsided. 

In 2008, Albertville’s local elections were dominated by calls to stop illegal immigration. But by the time the 2012 elections rolled around, the main proponents of the anti-immigration push, Councilman Chuck Ellis and Mayor Lindsey Lyons, were voted out of office along with every incumbent except Council president Nathan Broadhurst. Immigration was barely an issue in the race.

Broadhurst, along with current Mayor Tracy Honea, takes a more moderate stance on the issue. He said a turning point for the city government was when Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State considered the intellectual force behind self-deportation, offered his services to help them sue businesses for profiting off illegal labor. The council voted his proposal down 3-2.

“The majority of us felt like it was counterproductive to try and go after local industries,” Broadhurst said. “Especially industries that are so vital to the tax base of the city.” he believes Albertville has reached a detente as the city’s different communities interact more.

“Certainly I think it changes the dynamics of a town,” Honea said of the last two decades of immigration. “But I think the community as a whole has grown and learned a lot. For the most part they’ve embraced the reality of what it is.”

After two years of turmoil, undocumented immigrants aren’t leaving Alabama. But they still live in fear of deportation and have no obvious way of becoming full-fledged Americans.

 “I think God brought us to this country for a reason,” Yaneth Rangel, who emigrated from Veracruz, said. “We need an amnesty. We need a solution.”