MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama vaulted past Arizona on Thursday with what is being called the most restrictive law in the nation against illegal immigration, requiring schools to find out if students are in the country lawfully and making it a crime to knowingly give an illegal immigrant a ride.
Republican Gov. Robert Bentley signed the legislation into law Thursday. Advocacy groups promised to challenge the sweeping measure, which like Arizona's law also allows police to arrest anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant if the person is stopped for some other reason. In addition, it requires all businesses to check the legal status of workers using a federal system called E-Verify.
The Alabama law, combined with legislation passed in May by neighboring Georgia, has arguably made this swath of the South the nation's hottest immigration battleground.
The new law makes Alabama the fourth state, after Georgia, Utah and Indiana, to follow Arizona's lead in enacting significant statewide immigration legislation, potentially mollifying those voters frustrated with Washington's perceived failure to deal with the estimated 11.2 million illegal immigrants currently living in the United States.
Alabama has an estimated 120,000 illegal immigrants, a nearly fivefold increase from a decade ago, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Many of them are believed to be working on farms, at chicken processing plants and in construction.
A number of other states, including Florida, California, Nevada and Texas, have seen Arizona-style bills fail during this year's legislative sessions, and portions of the Arizona law — including the provision requiring police to check immigration status of those they stop and suspect are in the country illegally — have been blocked by a federal judge, and may go to the Supreme Court.
ACLU plans suit
The American Civil Liberties Union declared its intention Thursday to file a lawsuit opposing the law, arguing that it would invite racial profiling.
Wade Henderson, head of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the law "is designed to do nothing more than terrorize the state's Latino community."
One of the legislation's sponsors, Republican Sen. Scott Beason, said it would help the unemployed by preventing illegal immigrants from getting jobs in the state. Alabama's unemployment rate stood at 9.3 percent in April, the most recent figure available.
"This will put thousands of Alabamians back in the work force," Beason said.
Inside and outside Alabama, proponents of a more robust immigration policy praised the law.
"We have a real problem with illegal immigration in this country," Bentley said after signing the law.
Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, said, "I think this shows one more case of states moving to do what the Obama administration is unwilling to do."
The Alabama law, which takes effect Sept. 1, bars illegal immigrants from receiving any state or local public benefits; prevents them from enrolling in or attending public colleges; and prohibits them from applying for or soliciting work.
Property rental barred
It outlaws the harboring and transport of illegal immigrants, and outlaws renting them property or "knowingly" employing them for any work within the state. It also makes it a "discriminatory practice" to fire, or decline to hire, a legal resident when an illegal one is on the payroll.
The law also criminalizes "dealing in false identification documents." It deems invalid any contract to which an illegal immigrant is a party, if the legal party in the contract has "direct or constructive knowledge" that the other person was in the country illegally. And it requires a citizenship check for people registering to vote.
For opponents, one of the most disturbing provisions is a requirement that officials in K-12 public schools determine whether students are illegal immigrants. It will not ban the students from schools, but rather require every school district to submit an annual report on the number of presumed illegal immigrants to the state education board.
Jared Shepherd, an attorney for the ACLU, warned that because of that provision, some immigrant parents may not send their children to school for fear of arrest or deportation.
Information from the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press was used in this report.