Alabama’s harsh news immigration law doesn’t just create a lofty constitutional clash over the powers of federal and state government, Department of Justice officials said on Monday. Rather, they said, the law appears to be having unfortunate down-to-earth effects in the schools, in the workplace and on how police officers do their jobs.
“The more we hear…the more we are concerned about the impact,” said Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, in charge of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. Perez spoke in Birmingham, where he was joined by Assistant Attorney General Tony West, head of the Civil Division, and U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance of the Northern District of Alabama.
The officials held a briefing for reporters that was also available by conference call to journalists.
The DOJ is challenging the immigration laws of several states (see Main Justice’s recent report), but Alabama’s law is particularly important because some of its provisions are already being enforced, sometimes in contravention of federal law and often with troubling and unintended consequences, the DOJ officials said.
The officials said they are prepared to explore for weeks, or months, if necessary, the impact of the Alabama law. They expressed confidence that the showdown between Washington and Alabama will be settled sooner rather than later, and perhaps even amiably. But if friendly persuasion doesn’t work, the officials said, they have full confidence that the federal government will prevail in the courts.
Part of the Alabama law would require aliens to carry registration cards and schools to verify students’ immigration status (see our recent report), although those portions have been blocked, at least temporarily, but a federal appeals court, as Main Justice reported.
Meanwhile, the officials said Monday they are concerned about the possibility that some Alabama schoolchildren may be kept at home by frightened parents; that some employers may withhold pay from workers who feel they have no recourse because of their status, and that some families may be denied fair housing.
While the underlying issues are of constitutional gravity, they are not merely constitutional, West said. “We’re deeply concerned about the real-world, unintended consequences,” he said.
Vance said the Alabama law’s stated purpose of cracking down on illegal aliens who commit crimes is backfiring, not just by creating confusion over enforcement between federal and state authorities but, indeed, confusion among the 31 counties in her jurisdiction. This situation is especially lamentable, she said, because it promotes “misallocation of limited resources” in a time of government belt-tightening.
The officials reiterated what the federal authorities have been saying about the various state immigration actions: that the separate states are encouraged to help Washington enforce federal immigration laws — indeed, they are encouraged to do so — but they simply cannot enact and enforce their own immigration policies.
There was a certain poignancy to the news briefing when the officials voiced confidence that they will get all the information they need from Alabama school officials. The confidence is based on what was described as decades of “deseg work,” shorthand for federal efforts to move Alabama beyond the tenets of Gov. George C. Wallace, who proudly proclaimed “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” when he was inaugurated in 1963.
Since that time, the officials said, the relationship between Washington and Alabama has evolved into one that is deep and productive. “I’ve never met a school superintendent who didn’t have an unwavering commitment to educating kids,” Perez said.