Alabama passes nation's toughest immigration law

MONTGOMERY, AL (RNN) - A controversial bill meant to crack down on illegal immigration was signed into law by the governor of a Southern state still trying to shake its civil rights skeletons of the past.

The new law requires landlords, employers, and public education administrators to verify the citizenship of the people they rent property to, hire or enroll in public schools. It also allows a suspected illegal alien to have his immigration status verified with federal authorities should he be arrested and booked into jail.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley signed the controversial bill into law Thursday.

"We took what the rest of the country had done and combined our thoughts with it. I feel like we have an Arizona bill with an Alabama flavor," said Alabama Republican State Rep. Micky Hammon, a co-sponsor of the bill. "We feel like it's the strongest and best bill in the nation. We feel confident it will hold up to constitutional muster."

A number of groups, including the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the American Civil Liberties Union, condemned the bill.

The two organizations will be part of a coalition that will file a law suit in the coming days, according to Sam Brooke, an SPLC lawyer.

"This law will set back years of progress Alabama has made on civil rights, and will also prove economically devastating for Alabama," said Sam Brooke of the SPLC's Immigrant Justice Project. "This is why the Southern Poverty Law Center and other civil rights groups will challenge this racist and harmful unconstitutional law in court."

The new law goes much further than a controversial Arizona law, which requires state police to determine an individual's immigration status if stopped. Aliens must carry their immigration documentation at all times, and employers and transporters of illegal laborers are dealt harsh penalties.

Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer set a tidal wave in motion when the bill was signed into law on April 23, 2010. The law is still being fought in court.

Brewer has accused the federal government of not properly enforcing the nation's immigration laws, something senior leadership in the state of Alabama echoed Thursday evening.

"While I have not seen the details of the legislation, I support strong efforts by the states to enforce immigration laws in light of the federal government's failure to do so," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-AL.

As a member of the U.S. Senate, Shelby does not vote on bills in the state legislature and is therefore not expected to know their every detail.

Utah and Georgia have similar laws.

The legislation, which is referred to as the Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, makes it illegal to harbor, conceal or transport an illegal alien "if the person knows or recklessly disregards the fact" that the alien is in the country illegally.

According to the SPLC, this will require all landlords to check their clients' immigration status to avoid criminal penalties.

[Click here to read bill (PDF)]

The bill prohibits illegal aliens from enrolling in public, state-funded universities and disqualifies them from being eligible for scholarships, grants or financial aid.  It also requires public elementary and secondary schools to determine the immigration status of a student, as well as compile reports on the number of legal and illegal students enrolled and the costs associated with educating them.

As of April 2012, businesses will be required to verify employees' work eligibility through an internet program called E-Verify.

Should a business retain or hire an illegal alien after terminating or failing to hire a qualified U.S. citizen, a business could be exposed to civil liability.

Additionally, if a citizen believes a police officer is not enforcing the law, it could be the basis for a suit against the officer and the police department, Brooke said.

Enforced or not, Brooke said the law will be costly to taxpayers on several fronts. The state of Kentucky recently considered a similar bill, he said, which was estimated to have cost $85 million annually to enforce.

Some Alabama politicians, however, see the law as a job creator.

"Our concern is the number of illegal immigrants entering the state and taking jobs from the people of Alabama," said Republican State Sen. Scott Beason, a co-sponsor.

He said the law should be thought of as an "anti-illegal immigration" law instead of an anti-immigration one.

For advocates like Clarissa Martinez, the director of Immigrations at the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino civil rights and advocacy group, it's all about politics.

"The passage of Arizona's copycat racial profiling law makes one point abundantly transparent - these laws are much more about irresponsible political calculation than about anything resembling sound policy-making," she said.

Brooke said the lawsuit should see its day in court prior to September, when the bill is set to be enforced.

It remains unknown at this time whether the Department of Justice (DOJ), who sued the state of Arizona over its bill, will also take part in the suit.

Tracy Schmaler, a DOJ spokeswoman, declined to comment on the new law Thursday afternoon.

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