The anti-immigration laws of Georgia and Alabama

As draconian immigration laws pass through state houses, it’s reassuring to know we have the courts. Arizona’s SB 1070 has been twice dismissed in federal court, and Alabama and Georgia’s copycat statutes in Alabama (HB 56) and Georgia (HB 87) will face similar legal challenges. But while the courts are vital in protecting the rights of minorities, the judiciary alone cannot protect our country from an offensive against immigrants.

Anti-immigration advocates are working hard to spread these laws and enforce them in court. Pro-immigrant advocates and allies across the country must therefore come up with a strong response to break their momentum.

Alabama’s HB 56 and Georgia’s HB 87 summarize everything that is wrong with the states’ legislative effort. Among other things, they authorize local police officers to verify the immigration status of anyone they suspect is an unauthorized immigrant (Alabama) or violating the law (Georgia), and require businesses to continue to use an electronic verification system of the Federal (E-Verify) are piloting or at risk of losing their licenses (Alabama and Georgia).

Alabama law goes even further. It creates state crimes for immigrants who do not carry a document proving their legal status and for anyone who knowingly provides a ride or rents an apartment to an unauthorized immigrant. (A similar provision in Georgia regarding the transportation of unauthorized immigrants applies only to those who have violated another law.) It also bans unauthorized immigrants from attending public colleges and forces public schools to determine students’ immigration status.

The transportation and housing provisions open the door to a veritable trawl of immigrant communities and the citizens who interact with them, much like the “accommodation” provisions in the 2005 “Scythe Burner Act” that caused a national outcry. Public school registration, meanwhile, amounts to a backdoor attempt to deter undocumented immigrants from public schools, in violation of a 1982 Supreme Court ruling that all children, regardless of immigration status, have the right to public education.

No wonder Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, noted that Alabama’s “draconian initiative is so oppressive that Bull Connor himself would be impressed.”

As in the case of Arizona, these laws are being challenged on the basis that the federal government has sole constitutional authority to enforce immigration law and should retain it or we create a confusing collage of immigration enforcement across the country. Equally important, as in the case of Arizona, these laws raise serious racial profiling and public safety concerns for immigrants and citizens alike.

Also, the economic case for these laws is dubious at best. In Georgia, for example, Gov. Nathan Deal based estimates of the cost of illegal immigration on a highly problematic report by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which the Southern Poverty Law Center has classified as a “hate group.” Meanwhile, business leaders, tourism promoters and producers have publicly spoken out against HB 87 over its economic and reputational risk.

Although legal challenge arose quickly after Arizona’s passage of SB 1070 last April, state anti-immigration laws continue to proliferate because they are promoted by an impressive nativist network — namely, John Tanton’s national network of organizations, which includes FAIR and other “hate groups” include “backed by big benefactors and foundations, like the ultra-conservative Colcom Foundation.

With the deep Tanton network firmly behind states’ nativist legislative efforts, these laws will continue to proliferate unless pro-immigrant groups can vigorously oppose them.

The immigration rights movement has responded by protesting laws like these, and national advocacy groups have pledged legal challenges that will likely block HB 56 and HB 87 in whole or in part. But the anti-immigration lobby is learning to take advantage of the legal system. Conservative legal scholars such as Kris Kobach, the new Secretary of State for Kansas and associate of FAIR’s Legal Department, have developed strategies to promulgate these laws as widely as possible and to create a sufficient veneer of constitutionality to withstand court challenge.

The Supreme Court, with its conservative majority, has already upheld a key piece of the anti-immigration bill in a case about a previous Arizona law that makes E-Verify mandatory and threatens to revoke the licenses of companies that don’t comply. In light of the E-Verify ruling, the High Court also asked an appeals court to reconsider a Hazleton, Pennsylvania ordinance making it illegal to rent housing to an unauthorized immigrant. Kobach and his allies are already trying to build on such a precedent when drafting new legislation, as FAIR boasted when drafting the Alabama law.

All of this suggests that court cases alone will not stem the proliferation of anti-immigrant laws.

Recognizing this, organizations like Alabama Appleseed and the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama have protested against their state’s law and are already planning their response to its passage, including possible prayer vigils, rallies and efforts to involve out-of-state allies.

Meanwhile, pro-immigrant groups like Somos Georgia and the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights are organizing a “Human Rights Summer” in communities across the state and a day of “non-compliance” with the new law. Somos Georgia and its allies have also called for a national tourism boycott of the state, which some progressive organizations have already followed. Given that immigrant organizing is still in its infancy in much of the Southeast, these groups need outside pressure to succeed.

The economic and reputational costs to Arizona after the SB 1070 boycott had an important demonstration effect. Twenty-six state legislatures have responded by rejecting copycat legislation, and even Arizona’s Red Legislature has thrown out more anti-immigrant bills this year.

However, without a vocal national response to the Alabama and Georgia laws that amounts to boycotting SB 1070, this type of state law could become the new norm. Lawmakers hungry for copycats will take the Arizona boycott as a flash in the pan, while the Tanton network will continue to work to find ways to enforce nativist laws.

Every time one of these laws is passed, it encourages its supporters — not just in other red states, but in purple and blue states as well. Nativism may have its strongest expression below the Mason-Dixon line, but it is not limited to the South and Southwest. If we don’t all fight back now, it could soon be knocking on all of our doors.


Daniel Altschuler has has written extensively on Central American politics and US immigration policy for publications including the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, The Nation, CNNand contradiction. He is a contributing blogger to AQ Online and holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. To read more of his writing, visit

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