Alabama Governor Sends Immigration Law Back to Drawing Board

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley is sending lawmakers back to the drawing board to rework proposed revisions to the state’s immigration law – considered the toughest in the nation.

Bentley, a Republican, said he wants the legislature to remove a provision in Alabama's immigration law that requires school officials to ask students about the legal status of their parents.

Bentley signed a proclamation calling for a special session of the Alabama legislature starting May 17.  The special session is to cover measures dealing with the state budget, redistricting as well as immigration.

A press release issued by the governor’s office expressed concern about two key provisions of a bill that contained revisions to an existing immigration bill, HB 56, which was signed into law last year.  Bentley appears to be concerned that the revised measure tramples on constitutional rights.

We must make sure that final revisions to the immigration law make the law more effective, help promote economic growth, ensure fairness, and provide greater clarity on the application of the law.

— Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley on need for revisions for the state's immigration law

“A portion of the existing immigration law calls for school children to be interrogated about immigration status,” the press release said. “This section is currently enjoined by a federal court.  Governor Bentley believes that revising this section to prevent children from being interrogated would allow the injunction to be lifted, making the law more effective.”

The release said that while Bentley sympathizes with concerns in Alabama about how much of a cost illegal immigration has on education, he does not want attempts to collect data to gauge the cost to violate constitutional rights.

The governor also has concerns, the release said, about a proposed revision to the law that calls on the Department of Homeland Security, which handles immigration enforcement, to make public the names of undocumented immigrants who “have had various matters before the courts,” whether or not they are convicted.

“Such a list could be counterproductive and take away from the focus of the original law,” the statement said. “The purpose of this particular section of the law is to gather data and statistics, not names.”

The governor, however, supports the basic concept of cracking down on illegal immigration.

"The essence of the law must remain the same, and that is if you live or work in Alabama, you must do so legally,” Bentley said.  “We must make sure that final revisions to the immigration law make the law more effective, help promote economic growth, ensure fairness, and provide greater clarity on the application of the law.  I believe these additional revisions will help us as we accomplish those goals.  A more effective, enforceable bill is a stronger bill.”

Critics of the bill said state-level immigration enforcement is a bad idea, and that the state’s immigration law should be repealed.

“The tinkering, tweaking and toying with HB 56 does not address its underlying flaws of totally violating the civil rights of undocumented immigrants in Alabama,” said Rich Stolz, interim director of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, a network of community-based immigrant advocacy organizations in 30 states.

“These changes, if anything, only exacerbate worries over racial profiling, undermine trust between law enforcement and immigrant communities, encourage vigilante harassment and send a message that immigrants, or anyone that looks like one, is unwelcome in Alabama.”

Alabama officials who support the bill, and other proponents, say it is necessary because the federal government has failed to address illegal immigration.

Both chambers of the state legislature had signed off on the measure that Bentley sent back to them.

The House on Wednesday reluctantly agreed to a stripped-down version of changes they passed to the proposed revisions last month.

The Senate voted 20-7 on the final day of the Legislature's 2012 regular session to change the revisions made by the House. Senators left most of the controversial provisions of the law intact, including one removed by the House that would require schools to check the citizenship status of students who enroll.

On Wednesday night, demonstrators protesting the law met the news that the House had passed the measure with a tearful prayer service outside of the Statehouse, hours after seven of them were arrested for trying to block the entrances of both legislative chambers.

The revisions to the immigration bill would allow military IDs to be used as proof of citizenship. It would also allow people pulled over in the state to use a credit card or voter registration as temporary ID, whereas previously a person pulled over without a driver's license would have to be taken to jail.

The Senate left out a provision clarifying that nothing in the immigration law would prevent religious organizations from ministering or providing charitable aid to undocumented immigrants.

That provision was included in the House changes. But the Senate killed an amendment by Senate Minority Leader Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, that he said would have exempted religious organizations from the immigration law entirely.

Remaining in the law is the requirement that law enforcement officers determine the citizenship of people believed to be in the country illegally if they are pulled over for a traffic violation.

On Wednesday, while the Senate was passing the immigration revisions, protesters outside were chanting slogans demanding the law's repeal and singing songs like "Amazing Grace," "This Little Light of Mine" and "We Shall Overcome."

This story contains material  from The Associated Press.

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