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Alabama Retains Tough Immigration Enforcement Law, Despite the Odds


On May 18th Governor Robert Bentley signed HB 658, a bill that amends Alabama’s 2011 immigration enforcement law. Although marketed as a “tweak” of existing law, HB 658 as passed by the House would have seriously undermined it before courts had a chance to rule on pending lawsuits. Fortunately, NumbersUSA members were able to convince the Senate to delete many harmful provisions and persuade House members to accept the changes.

Since the law passed in June 2011, it was under assault by business, local government, religious and open-border groups as well as hostile media outlets around the country. They waged a public relations war designed to excoriate the law and defame the reputations of the legislators that stepped in to protect Alabamians.

Moreover, the Obama Administration sued to block the law in conjunction with a number of religious and open border groups and unions. Many congressional Democrats joined in the lawsuit along with the governments of 16 other nations. But in September federal District Judge Sharon Blackburn turned down most of their pleas when she temporarily enjoined only four provisions of the law. These included measures that penalized the “harboring” of illegal aliens, made it a crime to fail to carry federal alien registration documents and allowed citizens to sue employers who hired illegal aliens over them.

From the beginning of this year’s session, House Republican leaders insisted they would only “tweak” the law to fix unintended consequences. They said they would not succumb to the demands of the Obama Administration and anti-enforcement groups to repeal or fundamentally undermine the law. To their credit, the end product (HB 658) did not obliterate Alabama’s law but it did seriously weaken it in a manner that benefited business and local government groups.

HB 658, as introduced in the House by Majority Leader Micky Hammon, would have:

  • Made it unlikely that a company would ever lose a business license for hiring illegal aliens;
  • Excluded contractors from the E-Verify requirement if they conducted less than 50 percent of their business with the state;
  • Deleted a process allowing citizens to sue local officials who refuse to enforce anti-sanctuary law; and
  • Restricted police immigration status checks to suspected illegal aliens after an arrest or issuance of a traffic ticket.

NumbersUSA members tried to stop the bill but Hammon had convinced his caucus that the bill did not weaken existing law or cave in to special-interest demands. You would think they would know better, given that business groups were backing the bill, but apparently not. The bill passed the House by a 64-34 margin.

Fortunately, Scott Beason – the lead Senator on immigration matters -- was more circumspect in drafting his bill. For one thing, he crafted a bill (SB 541) that avoided the issues being litigated in federal court and those affected by the upcoming Supreme Court ruling in the SB 1070 case. His rationale was that changing these provisions prior to court rulings would only delay implementation of the law. That threat was real because the Obama Administration, ACLU and others were likely to bring new challenges.

The day after SB 541 passed committee, House Republican leaders and special interest groups convinced Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh to use HB 658 as a vehicle for changes instead of Sen. Beason’s bill. HB 658 cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee but public pressure forced Marsh to give Beason latitude in crafting a floor amendment that mirrored SB 541. Beason also was pressured to cave in to House demands – e.g., for weakened employer non-compliance provisions -- but calls to him and other Senators from NumbersUSA members strengthened their backbones.

The Senate ended up passing (20-7 vote) its version of HB 658 on May 16th, the last day of the 2012 legislative session. NumbersUSA members had been pressuring House members to accept the Senate version if it did no further damage. They did, on a 67-37 vote, just hours before the midnight deadline.

The drama didn’t end there, though. Governor Bentley signaled that he would not sign the bill unless the legislature adopted two changes. A special session on redistricting started on May 17th so legislative leaders were in a tough spot. If they wanted HB 658 to become law, they would have to comply with the governor’s wishes because he has “pocket veto” authority. But that meant that the bill could again be subject to amendments from antagonistic legislators.

Alabamians pressured legislators to tow the line and told the governor to back down. In the end, Republican leaders told the governor that legislators did not have the “appetite” for addressing further changes at that time. So the governor signed the bill and put the issue to rest for now.

Upon signing HB 658, the governor said, "Over the last several months, we worked closely with legislators to revise House Bill 56. The set of revisions that passed in the full House of Representatives and the Senate Judiciary Committee had my support. The bill that the full Senate ultimately passed was different and did not reflect all of the changes we had agreed upon. However, the bill did include most of the suggested revisions and represented substantial progress in simplifying the bill while keeping it strong."

I should interpret what the governor means here. When he says the bill that passed “did not reflect all of the changes we had agreed upon,” he means Alabamians got in the way of the back room deal he had negotiated with legislative leaders, business groups and others. Citizens stood up for their law and, for the most part, won. Yes, some provisions in the law were weakened but the situation would have been much worse if NumbersUSA members had not repeatedly called to press for the strongest possible law. When you consider the array of powerful interests on the other side, this was a real victory by the people of Alabama.

VAN ESSER is the Manager of Membership Services for NumbersUSA

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