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.
Alabama's law, pushed through by a new Republican super-majority in the state Legislature, is being challenged in federal court by the Justice Department, about 30 civil rights organizations and some prominent church leaders. Judges have blocked some provisions, but sections still stand that allow police to check a person's immigration status during traffic stops and make it a felony for illegal immigrants to conduct basic state business, like getting a driver's license.
State Rep. Alvin Holmes, the senior black member of the Legislature, said Republicans can't undo the voting rights gains of Democratic-leaning blacks, so they are going after brown-skinned people in hopes they won't gain a voting foothold. "They feel if these Hispanics come in and get registered to vote, they will team up with black voters to take over Alabama politics," he said.
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.
Beason, the powerful chairman of the state Senate's Rules Committee, has prompted some of the comparisons with the civil rights era by telling one group that the Legislature needed to "empty the clip" on the immigration issue. And in tapes played during the federal trial of several lawmakers and lobbyists accused of buying and selling votes on gambling legislation, he referred to customers of a dog track in a predominantly black county as "aborigines."
Opponents of the law have fueled the comparisons by holding rallies at historic civil rights sites and drawing support from civil rights organizations.
No one in the Alabama Legislature was talking about immigration laws a decade ago because the Hispanic population was so small. 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 — though it's only a fraction of the 11 million or so estimated in the country.
That rapid rise drew complaints from residents who blamed Hispanics for knocking them out of jobs by working for cheaper wages and no benefits.
"They were coming in here like thieves in the night and taking our jobs and tax revenue," said Republican Rep. Micky Hammon, who also sponsored the new law.
To be sure, construction businesses and farms say Hispanic workers they have relied upon have fled the state. So far, they haven't been able to find legal residents willing to take on what is usually backbreaking work.
The governor 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 secessionist Confederate Civil War 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.
"You are giving the image, whether it's valid or not, that you don't like foreigners, period," he said, adding that state leaders frequently seize on bad publicity to knock other states out of competition for new jobs.
That bad publicity has made its way to Hillsboro, Wisconsin, where information technology businessman Charles Manser and 11 of his buddies have canceled a 10-day golfing vacation to Alabama.
Manser said one friend was born in Puerto Rico and another is a British citizen. They were concerned about being hassled over their legal status.
"Whether it's legitimate or not, that's the message seen by people who might come to Alabama," he said.
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