Alabama and Georgia’s anti-immigrant laws are meant to force immigrants out of the country by making their lives miserable and could violate all residents’ fundamental civil rights.
Those were among the arguments raised today by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups during a highly anticipated court hearing in Atlanta. The attorneys presented their case in front of a three-judge panel in a packed courtroom at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta.
Cecillia Wang, director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, talked about the great harm inflicted by Alabama ‘s draconian law, H.B. 56, the most extreme in the nation.
"The Alabama statues at issue here impose a state law scheme to carry out the legislature’s stated purpose – ‘to attack every aspect of an illegal immigrant’s life so they will deport themselves,’" Wang said.
Parts of the Alabama law took effect in September, leading to a humanitarian and economic crisis, with families fleeing the state, children pulling out of school and people afraid to drive to church, work or the grocery store. Alabama serves as a warning about why states should not pass their own immigration laws, which are a federal matter.
"Congress has directed the executive branch to carry out a system that balances complex and sometimes competing national interests," Wang said.
Alabama assumes that immigrants are either legal or illegal, but the federal system accounts for national concerns like granting people refuge from persecution.
The appellate court today also heard arguments from the U.S. Department of Justice, which also sued to block Alabama’s law because it conflicts with federal law. The three-hour hearing started with arguments in the Georgia case, where ACLU’s Omar Jadwat discussed how under the law, something as ordinary as a traffic stop would turn police officers into enforcers of federal immigration law.
"The police officer acting under (this law) will take off their police officer hat at some point in the interaction and put on an immigration officer hat instead, and then commence an immigration status investigation," said Jadwat, senior staff attorney for the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project.
The "show-me-your-papers" laws such as those in Georgia and Alabama are un-American and lead to widespread civil rights abuses. Jadwat told the court that the United States has never demanded people carry documents with them at all times.
"We’ve never had a requirement in this country that everybody has to carry a certain form of identification to be free from detention by the police," he said.
In addition to Georgia and Alabama, the ACLU has also sued against anti-immigrant laws in Arizona, Utah, Indiana and South Carolina. The court said today it would wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in a related Arizona immigration case before issuing a decision. Wang concluded by reminding the court of the great need to block the Alabama law.
"The plaintiffs that we represent in this case are suffering on an ongoing basis because of H.B. 56 and these provisions," she said.