WASHINGTON -- Alabama Republican lawmakers announced a bill last week that would revise the state's immigration law. Opponents of the law aren't impressed, and are pushing Democrats in the state house to vote against the bill.
The amendments to Alabama's H.B. 56, which allows government officials to inquire about immigration status in a number of situations, are meant to address concerns from the business, faith and law enforcement communities.
But some of those changes would expand police powers to make arrests or inquiries about immigration status -- the opposite of the changes many rights groups that are critical of the law had requested. The Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice Leaders, a group of organizations that oppose the law, are encouraging Democrats in the state legislature to hold out for a better bill to amend the law, representatives told reporters on a press call Tuesday.
"We continue to see the fear in the economy ... We know that [the proposed revision bill] is not going to do anything but continue to target [undocumented immigrants]," Isabel Rubio, executive director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, said on the call. "We have got to push back and not even consider a tweak, but a total repeal of H.B. 56."
The bill tucks some expansions of police power into provisions that in other ways would limit police action. For example, the new bill proposes that police would be able to ask for proof of immigration status only when making an arrest or, for drivers, only when issuing a ticket, should they have "reasonable" suspicion that the person in question is undocumented. The current law allows for immigration status questions on any type of stop.
That may be a step in the right direction, opponents of the law said on Tuesday, but it doesn't resolve the problem entirely, given the numerous reasons police can give for a traffic citation. And in the same section, the proposed changes would actually expand police authority, allowing them to ask about immigration status of everyone in the car rather than simply the driver.
Another proposed amendment to the immigration law would stiffen the penalty and limitations for legal residents who help undocumented immigrants with transportation. Men and women without legal status cannot obtain driver's licenses within the state of Alabama, meaning that many need to be driven by citizens or legal residents to avoid driving without a license or registration.
In H.B. 56, driving 10 or more undocumented immigrants would be against the law. But in the amendments, that number is cut down to five. That change would allow a larger number of men and women to be arrested for a felony if they drive their family members or people they want to help, Angie Wright, pastor at Greater Birmingham Ministries, said on the call with reporters.
"The law has been made more harsh," she said. "As a pastor or even as an individual, if I give five people a ride to the grocery store or to work or to a clinic, I could be charged with a felony, which would send me to prison for 10 years."
Zayne Smith, coordinator of the "One Family, One Alabama" campaign of the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, told reporters that the law would also fail to address business concerns, especially those of smaller businesses and farms. The bill would still require the use of E-Verify, a federal program that checks the immigration status of potential employees, which opponents say imposes significant costs in time and money and harms small businesses.
Smith admitted that there is an "uphill battle" for repeal, particularly in the current legislative session. The bill to amend the law may also be difficult to stop: It has support from many Republicans, including those who control the state legislature and Gov. Robert Bentley (R), all of whom have vowed not to weaken the law.
Still, opponents say they will keep fighting to end the law entirely.
"We cannot be satisfied and we will not be satisfied until our state, the state of Alabama treats us all as equal," Bernard Simelton, president of the NAACP Alabama State Conference, told reporters.