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Alabama law invites civil rights comparison

The epicenter of the fight over the nation's patchwork of immigration laws is not Arizona, which shares a border with Mexico and became a common site for boycotts. Nor was it any of the four states that were next to pass their own crackdowns.

No, the case that's likely to be the first sorted out by the U.S. Supreme Court comes from this Deep South state, where the nation's strictest immigration law has resurrected ugly images from Alabama's days as the nation's battleground for civil rights a half-century ago.

With the failure of Congress in recent years to pass comprehensive federal immigration legislation, Arizona, Georgia, Utah, South Carolina and Indiana have passed their own. But supporters and opponents alike agree none contained provisions as strict as those passed in Alabama, among them one that required schools to check students' immigration status.

That provision, which has been temporarily blocked, would allow the Supreme Court to reconsider a decision that said a K-12 education must be provided to illegal immigrants.

Its stature as the strictest in the nation, along with the inevitable comparisons of today's Hispanics with African-Americans of the 1950s and 1960s, makes it a near certainty the law will be a test case for the high court.

Opponents say the new law's schools provision conjures images of Gov. George Wallace's stand in the schoolhouse door to block integration.

"Today we have a different stand in the schoolhouse door. We have efforts to intimidate children who have a constitutional right to go to school," said Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Illegal immigrants interviewed by the Associated Press have said their children were bullied and told to go back to Mexico, while others have described their intense fears of arrest and deportation.

Proponents say the law had nothing to with race. They say it was the result of frustration with the federal government's inaction and an effort to open up jobs for the nearly 10 percent of legal state residents out of work.

"There are people who try to make racism a cottage industry and profit off it, but I would put the harmony in Alabama up against any place in the country," said Republican Sen. Scott Beason, one of the law's sponsors.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates the number of illegal immigrants in Alabama has grown from 25,000 in 2000 to 120,000 in 2010 -- a nearly fivefold increase.

That rapid rise drew complaints from residents who blamed Hispanics for knocking them out of jobs by working for cheaper wages and no benefits.

Republican Gov. Robert Bentley, a supporter of the bill, said lawmakers in other states are eyeing Alabama's law as a blueprint for their own, but some fear that notoriety could come at a steep price: The state's image as an international automotive hub.

In 1993, a few months after state officials quit flying the Confederate battle flag on the Capitol dome, Mercedes selected Alabama for an assembly plant. Then came Honda, Toyota and Hyundai, and many auto suppliers.

The CEO of the state pension system, David Bronner, helped recruit those plants and now fears Alabama has hurt its ability to recruit.

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