Alabama immigration fight recalls civil rights era

By Phillip Rawls

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Oct. 29 2011 3:11 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this April 12, 1963 file photo, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, left, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. lead a column of demonstrators as they attempt to march on Birmingham, Ala., city hall, however, police intercepted the group short of their goal. 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. The case that's likely to be the first sorted out by the U.S. Supreme Court comes from the Deep South state of Alabama, 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. And Alabama's jump to the forefront says as much about the country's evolving demographics as it does the nation's collective memory of the state's sometimes violent path to desegregation.

Horace Cort, File, Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Alabama — The epicenter of the fight over the patchwork of immigration laws in the United States 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 the Deep South state of Alabama, where the nation's strictest immigration law has resurrected ugly images from the state's days as the nation's battleground for civil rights a half-century ago.

And Alabama's jump to the forefront says as much about the country's evolving demographics as it does the nation's collective memory of the state's sometimes violent path to desegregation.

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 decide if a kindergarten to high school education must be provided to illegal immigrants.

Its stature as the strictest in the U.S., along with the inevitable comparisons of today's Hispanics with African-Americans of the 1950s and '60s, makes it a near certainty the law will be a test case for the high court.

"It really offers the Supreme Court a broad canvas to reshape what being an immigrant in the United States means," said Foster Maer, an attorney with LatinoJustice in New York, which is challenging the law.

Alabama was well-suited to be the nation's civil rights battleground because of its harsh segregation laws, large black population, and the presence of a charismatic young minister named Martin Luther King Jr., who led a boycott of segregated buses in 1955-56.

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

Although no solid numbers exist, schools have reported fewer Hispanic students attending school, with some saying as much as 10 percent of their Hispanic students have withdrawn since the law took effect a month ago.

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.

The lawyer leading the state's defense, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, faults President Barack Obama's Justice Department for stirring the civil rights comparisons by falsely predicting the law would lead to the kind of widespread discrimination and profiling that marked Alabama's past.

"The idea they seem to have is there's a Bull Connor on every corner here in Alabama, which is so widely out of touch with our state," he said, referring to the public safety commissioner who unleashed police dogs and fire hoses on civil rights marchers in Birmingham in the 1960s.

At first glance, Alabama seems ill-suited to be the nation's immigration battleground. It's not a border state and is home to fewer illegal immigrants than several other Southern states.

"Why are we getting all the publicity? I think it has to do with Alabama's past and the perception that people have of Alabama over the years that don't live in our state and really don't recognize the amount of progress we've made in Alabama over the last 50 to 60 years," said Republican Gov. Robert Bentley, who supported the law and signed it into effect.

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