Alabama’s Imperiled Immigration Law Clogs Government Machinery

Mobile County spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to comply with a law designed to drive illegal immigrants from Alabama. Kim Hastie, the first-term Republican license commissioner, had an up-close look at the crackdown’s political cost.

Customers clogged her office in the Gulf Coast city founded by French colonists in 1702. Locals demanded to know why they were treated like foreigners after having to prove their citizenship to register a car or license a dog. A World War II veteran shouted at a clerk. A widow wept.

“I’m going to do what the law tells me to do,” Hastie, 52, said in Mobile last week. “But, as an elected official representing the taxpayer, I feel it’s my duty to say what I feel is unjust to the taxpayer. My concern is for the way the citizens of this state are being treated. This process has not been good.”

Alabama, which census data last year showed was 3.9 percent Hispanic, compared with 16.3 percent nationwide, is among five states that passed immigration laws modeled on Arizona’s tough 2010 statute. Now, after months of hassles in local government offices, Republican Governor Robert Bentley and lawmakers have promised to revisit the measure they touted as the nation’s strictest. The decision testified to the influence of hometown politicians like Hastie and demonstrated how interwoven America’s 10.2 million illegal immigrants have become in the larger society.

High Court

On Dec. 1, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange advised local officials to stop enforcing parts of the law after legal challenges. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court said it would review the Arizona statute. The outcome might nullify much of Alabama’s law.

The measure, which Bentley signed June 9, empowered police to detain people lacking documents when stopped for a traffic violation. It required schools to check the immigration status of new students and outlawed hiring, renting to or transporting illegal immigrants. It made it a felony for government officials to offer them “public benefits.”

It forced local officials to check the citizenship of anyone wanting a car registration, a title transfer, a handicapped license plate or a business permit. Mobile County even weighed requiring citizenship proof to adopt a puppy or kitten from the animal shelter, Hastie said.

The law’s intent was to make life so miserable that Hispanics would leave, according to state Representative Micky Hammon, a Decatur Republican, who sponsored the bill.

Port City

Of Mobile County’s 412,992 residents in 2010, 60 percent were white and 35 percent black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There were Hispanics, who can be of any race, American Indians and Asians, including Vietnamese refugees who work in the shrimp boats and shipyards of Bayou La Batre. The birthplace of Mardi Gras, Mobile’s French, Spanish, Creole and Catholic heritage distinguish it from the rest of the state.

The port city’s international firms include Australian shipbuilder Austal Ltd. and Germany’s ThyssenKrupp AG, whose $4.6 billion steel mill there opened a year ago.

Hastie said officials got no time to prepare for the law, and enforcement directives changed. The county spent $150,000 for scanners to meet an early mandate that it keep copies of citizenship documents. The office gave back $30,000 in fines it levied on 1,700 people whose licenses expired before they could prove their citizenship.

Death and Divorce

By mid-October, at Hastie’s urging, Alabama officials allowed the use of a driver’s license database to check who was in the country legally. Some still had problems, she said. To register a car or mobile home, clerks had to verify every name on a title. Divorce, a spouse’s death, remarriage or a misspelling all delayed the process.

“It’s been a real pain in the butt,” said Calvin Bosarge, 53, a U.S. citizen who owns two mobile-home parks in the fishing community of Bayou La Batre.

In one month, Hastie’s office handed out 332 temporary vehicle registrations to legal Alabamians without proper paperwork. There were 152 in all of 2010. Fewer than five people in the country illegally were turned away, she said.

Thwarted citizens got mad: “They’d say, ‘I’m not a Mexican. Do I look Mexican to you?’”

One World War II veteran had no birth certificate, an expired driver’s license and a military identification that the county couldn’t accept, she said.

“He was so mad he was yelling,” Hastie said. “He said, ‘I served my country and I can’t register my car?’”

An 85-year-old widow broke down after learning that she would have to spend more than $200 to get her dead husband’s name off five titles. Hastie paid half herself.

Intended Effect

Meanwhile, the law had its intended effect on immigrants. Farmers across the state complained of labor shortages as migrant workers left.

Foley, a town in Baldwin County across the bay, is 9.5 percent Hispanic, compared with Mobile County’s 2.4 percent, according to census data. Foley Elementary School, with 1,200 pupils, lost 70 of its 270 Hispanic students when parents fled, said Principal William Lawrence.

Remaining illegal parents are now terrified, afraid to drive or leave home, he said. One father was stopped Dec. 8 and sent to New Orleans for deportation, Lawrence said. His son told teachers the next morning that his father had a new job “very far away.”

The school helped parents draw up guardianship papers to keep their kids from becoming wards of the state should they be deported. Forty volunteers ferry immigrants to work, grocery stores and doctors’ offices, said Marita Llaverias Johnson, who is coordinating the effort for St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church.

‘Get Out’

Hispanic citizens were harassed. Alabama native Carmen Gonzales, a 27-year-old from Foley, said she found a flier about the law on her windshield after work, with the words “Get out of town” written on the top.

The Vietnamese refugees of Bayou La Batre were intimidated, too, said Ana Chau, an oyster shucker. Like many in the community, Chau purchased a laminated, wallet-sized, U.S. passport card after the law went into effect, so that she would never be without documentation.

Residents’ disquiet was echoed by their representatives, who had unique worries.

Mobile County Republicans Ken Megginson, a school board member, and Ashley Rich, the district attorney, attended a bicentennial parade last week in the city of Citronelle.

MoonPie Ritual

Speaking while being pelted with MoonPie pastries from parade floats -- a local ritual -- Rich said prosecutors dislike a provision that allows citizens to sue if the law isn’t enforced. Megginson said schools can’t afford to perform their new enforcement duties.

Such local leaders are a powerful force, William Stewart, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, said in a telephone interview. Their complaints trumped months of outcries from civil libertarians, churches and even the farmers, he said.

They made Bentley, the governor, look again at the law because their support is “critical to top-level state officials, to their ability to get into office and stay there, which is what they want.”

Another Look

Bentley said Dec. 9 that he was working with leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature to clarify and simplify the measure to eliminate burdens on legal residents.

“We recognize that changes are needed to ensure that Alabama not only has the nation’s most effective law, but one that is fair and just,” he said in a statement.

The law passed the state’s House of Representatives 67-29 and the Senate 25-7. Changing it may prove tricky, Stewart said, because the public supported it.

At the parade in Citronelle, 35 miles (56 kilometers) north of Mobile, many still did.

“By George, if they can’t be here legally, then they don’t need to be here at all,” said Malcolm Rowell, 61. “I know everybody likes to come to the U.S., but we can’t give them everything they want.”

Willie Gray, owner of the area’s weekly newspaper, the Call News, said his readers -- he estimated 100,000 online -- agree with Rowell, as does he.

He said the state acted only because the federal government did not.

-- Editors: Stephen Merelman, Pete Young

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