Campaign News
November 21, 2011

Lawmakers to rally opposition against state immigration law

Deborah Barfield Berry   ·  The Montgomery Advertiser

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.

Follow Terri