ACLU tells Georgia, Alabama appeals court anti-immigrant laws create climate of fear

Alabama and Georgia's anti-immigrant laws aim to push immigrants out of the country by making life difficult for them and could violate the basic civil rights of all residents.

These were some of the arguments made today by attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups during a highly anticipated court hearing in Atlanta. The attorneys presented their case before a three-judge panel in a packed courtroom at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta.

Cecillia Wang, director of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project, spoke about the great damage caused by Alabama's draconian law, HB 56, the most extreme in the country.

“The Alabama statutes at issue here establish state law to achieve the legislature's stated goal of 'attacking every aspect of an illegal immigrant's life so that he or she can deport himself,'” Wang said.

Parts of the Alabama law went into effect in September and created a humanitarian and economic crisis: Families fled the state, children dropped out of school and people feared driving to church, work or the grocery store. Alabama serves as a warning as to why states should not enact their own immigration laws, which are a federal matter.

“Congress has directed the executive branch to implement a system that balances complex and sometimes competing national interests,” Wang said.

Alabama assumes that immigrants are either legal or illegal, but the federal system takes into account national concerns such as providing refuge from persecution.

The appeals court today also heard arguments from the U.S. Department of Justice, which also filed a lawsuit seeking to block the Alabama law because it conflicts with federal law. The three-hour hearing began with arguments in the Georgia case in which the ACLU's Omar Jadwat discussed how, under the law, something as ordinary as a traffic stop would turn police officers into enforcers of federal immigration law.

“The police officer acting under (this law) will, at some point during the interaction, remove his police hat and instead put on an immigration officer's hat and then initiate an immigration status investigation,” said Jadwat, senior staff attorney for the ACLU Immigrant Rights Project.

Show-me-your-papers laws like those in Georgia and Alabama are un-American and lead to widespread civil rights violations. Jadwat told the court that the United States has never required people to carry documents at all times.

“We have never had a requirement in this country that everyone must carry a certain form of identification to avoid detention by the police,” he said.

In addition to Georgia and Alabama, the ACLU has also sued anti-immigrant laws in Arizona, Utah, Indiana and South Carolina. The court said today it will wait until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on a related immigration case in Arizona before issuing a ruling. Finally, Wang reminded the court of the great need to block the Alabama law.

“The plaintiffs we represent in this case continually suffer because of HB 56 and these provisions,” she said.