How To Understand The Federal Court Decision Striking Down Most Of Alabama’s Anti-Immigrant Law

When the Supreme Court ruled on Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, SB 1070 — invalidating much of the law and limiting the scope of the law’s “show me your papers” provision — its ruling clarified the constitutionality of the harmful state immigration laws also but left many questions unanswered about laws in other states that went even further than Arizona’s.

But in the first ruling on a state immigration law following the Supreme Court’s SB 1070 decision, the 11th Circuit federal appeals court struck down most of Alabama’s HB 56, including the worst provisions like the state’s attack on school children:

School officials cannot ask about students’ immigration status: Under HB 56, schools were required to determine the immigration status of every newly enrolled student. As a result, students stayed home from school once the provision went into effect in late September out of confusion over the law and fear that they or their parents could be deported. By February, 13 percent of Latino students dropped out by February as families fled Alabama because of the immigration policy.

Alabama cannot ban contracts between lawful and unlawful residents.: Alabama’s HB 56 included an unprecedented ban against contracting with undocumented immigrants. No other state or nation has such a measure, which, for example, could have made it illegal for a landlord to rent an apartment to someone who is not a legal resident. Politicians readily admitted that the goal of HB 56 was to make Alabama a hostile place for undocumented immigrants, and in blocking the contracts provision, the court recognized that the point of the contracts section was “forcing undocumented individuals out of Alabama.”

Additionally, the 11th Circuit stopped Alabama and Georgia from making it a crime to transport or harbor an undocumented immigrant in those states. Both states included these provisions in their similar anti-immigrant laws approved by state legislators more than a year ago. Arizona’s SB 1070 also makes its a crime to harbor or transport someone who is not a legal resident, but the Supreme Court did not rule on it. Today, a civil rights coalition is asking a federal judge in Arizona to block this section of SB 1070 especially now that it has been struck down in Alabama and Georgia.

But in its ruling about Alabama’s 2011 law, the federal appeals court let a portion of HB 56 stand that makes it a felony for an undocumented immigrant to “attempt to enter into a business transaction with the state or a political subdivision of the state. Originally, this provision was interpreted so broadly that it prevented undocumented immigrants from having running water at their homes, but legislators made changes to the measure last spring so that it only applies to a “public records transaction,” like a driver’s license or business license. The court ruled that the state could prevent undocumented immigrants from applying for these licenses just as it agreed that the state could prevent people who are not legally in the U.S. from attending state universities and community colleges.

The federal court removed most of the worst portions of the state immigration laws, and as the Supreme Court ruled on SB 1070, it left a window open for future legal challenges against Alabama and Georgia’s “show me your papers” provisions requiring law enforcement officers to determine the immigration status of anyone they have “reasonable suspicion” to believe is in the country illegally. In all, the 11th Circuit’s ruling is a victory for immigrant advocates and a significant — if not total — loss for proponents of extreme “self-deportation” immigration policies.