Lawmakers to rally opposition against state immigration law
WASHINGTON -- In an attempt to invoke the memory and passion of the civil rights movement, a group of Democratic lawmakers will stand in a historic church in Birmingham today to help rally opposition to the state's new law that seeks to get tough on illegal immigrants.
The 10 Democrats, including Rep. Terri Sewell of Birmingham, will participate in an ad hoc hearing on the immigration law and later help launch a petition to repeal it at the historic 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The church was the site of the 1963 bombing that killed four little girls during the civil rights movement.
"The history of fighting for justice and fighting for basic rights is still alive in Alabama," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who is heading the trip. "Indeed, a lot of what we know about social movements, about social change and fighting for justice, we learned from the people of Alabama less than a generation ago."
Supporters of the law, considered one of the toughest in the country, welcome the federal lawmakers.
"We live in America. The First Amendment gives them the right to come and say what they want to say," said state Republican Rep. Kerry Rich, a co-sponsor of the measure. "Some of these people are comparing this to 1961 or the civil rights days. Here's the difference -- in the 1960s ... Alabama was wrong for what it was doing."
Today, he said, the state is right to press for better enforcement of federal immigration laws.
"What we're upset about is they won't enforce the law," Rich said of federal officials. "That's where the breakdown comes."
The fight between state and federal lawmakers continues to escalate as more states, including Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, adopt their own immigration-related laws.
That tension is "probably going to get worse before it gets better," said Audrey Singer, immigration expert at the Brookings Institution. "This has become such a divisive issue that people off the top are willing to go to battle. ... There's tension between what the feds can do and what the states can do."
"It's not pretty, but resolving this issue is becoming an increasingly important issue across the country," she said.
Earlier this month, Republican senators from the South, including Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and David Vitter of Louisiana, introduced legislation that would block the Justice Department from suing states such as Alabama, Arizona and South Carolina over their new immigration laws.
DeMint called it "absurd" that the Obama administration is trying to stop states.
Vitter said states have stepped up to do what the federal government has neglected to do.
"Washington's only response is to oppose the state's enforcement efforts and take them to court," Vitter said. "We're working to stop these politically driven lawsuits by cutting off the ability for the Obama administration to use taxpayers' money to pay for them."
Sessions said the Justice Department "needs to stop going after states that are taking steps in harmony with federal laws to see that our immigration laws actually are enforced and to help end the lawlessness."
The Justice Department has filed lawsuits against Alabama, Arizona and South Carolina. The agency is also reviewing immigration laws recently passed in Georgia, Indiana and Utah.
DeMint's bill would prohibit the agency from using funds to file lawsuits against the states. He introduced a similar bill in 2010 when Arizona passed its immigration law. The measure, which had some Democratic support, failed.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada called the new laws "extreme" and said Republicans instead should work with Democrats to pass federal immigration reform that is "tough, fair and practical."
Gutierrez said that had such a law been in place in the 1960s "you could not have fought the Jim Crow laws of the South."
State lawmakers, many of them Republicans, said they have been frustrated that Congress hasn't acted on immigration reform.
"What we want the federal government to do is enforce their own law," said Rich.
By the end of June, 40 states had enacted 257 immigration-related laws and resolutions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Alabama law bars state and local agencies from doing business with undocumented immigrants, requires schools to collect information on the legal status of students and allows law enforcement officials during the course of their duties to detain people if they have a "reasonable suspicion" they are in the country illegally.
A federal judge has blocked several provisions of the law, including ones that prohibited undocumented aliens from attending post-secondary educational institutions and that made it a state crime to harbor, conceal or shield undocumented aliens.