Alabama Police Start Slowly in Enforcing Immigration Law

  • July 23, 2012
  • By Daniel Vock

CLANTON, Alabama — In the first nine months since Alabama police have been required to check the immigration status of every criminal suspect they encounter, Clanton police chief Brian Stilwell estimates his officers jailed fewer than a dozen immigrants as a result.

The immigrants who were detained, and later turned over to federal immigration authorities in Montgomery, ranged from serious offenders to harried drivers. One had a murder warrant out in Texas. Another was involved in drug trafficking. But others were pulled over for speeding or not having their headlights on. One woman, stopped for driving erratically, was trying to breast-feed her child.

The “stop and verify” provisions — derided by critics as a “show your papers” law — were some of the most contentious parts of Alabama's sweeping anti-immigration law, which legislators first passed last year. Right away, immigrants either left Alabama or hid out at home to avoid contact with the cops. But police in many areas have been treading carefully while carrying out the new law, stymied by an initial lack of training, revisions to the law and the threat of federal lawsuits.

Even though Alabama is off to a slow start in rolling out the law, it is ahead of the other states, including Arizona, that approved similar measures. Courts blocked laws in the other states, until the U.S. Supreme Court gave its initial approval last month to the approach in a case involving Arizona.

The decision could also affect Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah, which have similar laws. Lower courts must act before those laws can officially go into effect. Meanwhile, Alabama's police have been checking immigration status since late September.

The state will eventually disclose how many immigrants have been detained as a result of the law, but, for now, advocates on both sides of the issue agree that enforcement has been uneven. Supporters hope many of the practical problems that prevented police from enforcing it more widely have now been solved.

In Clanton, Stilwell says the immigration debate has thrust police into an uncomfortable position. “We're kind of the pawns in the middle of this whole thing,” he says. “Either side, everybody's mad at us about (enforcing the law). Either we're not doing it enough, or we're doing it too much.”

Immediate impact

After Alabama passed its far-reaching immigration law, judges blocked many of its provisions, leaving police verification of legal status as one of the only parts to take effect. Still, Scott Beason, a Republican state senator who sponsored the immigration bill last year, says the law has already had a “very positive impact.”

“We've seen the things happen that we said would happen,” he says. Beason credits the law for convincing immigrants to leave the state and for a drop in the state's unemployment rate that came about when the civilian workforce shrank. Beason says the changes are especially noticeable in the communities “hardest-hit” by illegal immigration.

Hispanic immigrants make up a smaller but still visible part of the population around Clanton, a town of some 8,600 people. They come to the area, halfway between Montgomery and Birmingham, to work in construction or in the nearby peach orchards. There are enough Spanish speakers in the area to support Spanish-language services in at least two downtown churches. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates 3.5 percent of city residents are foreign-born, a number some locals say seems low.

But while many immigrants still choose to live there, they go out less often since last year's law passed. Even church attendance dropped when the law was first introduced, says German Gomez, a minister who leads a Spanish-language mission of about 120 people at First United Methodist Church. His congregation avoids police. “Sheriff or police or whatever car with sirens on top,” he says, “they were afraid of.”

Stilwell, the police chief, says this fear affects his department's work. A woman who had her purse stolen at Wal-Mart did not report the crime, because she is undocumented. Prosecutors dropped another robbery case against three men because the victim, a Hispanic man, disappeared. “If there's no victim, there's no crime,” Stilwell says.

The police chief has tried to reach out to the Hispanic community. He talked to Gomez's congregation and attended a rally where, he says, he was probably the only one who needed translation to English. He tells people to obey speed limits, steer clear of fake IDs, make sure their car lights work and avoid domestic disputes. “They're a little apprehensive at first, but you know, I keep assuring them that we're the police for everybody,” he says. “This unfortunately has been a law that's been forced upon us.”

Sam Brooke, an attorney at Southern Poverty Law Center's Immigration Justice Project in Montgomery, says immigrants in Georgia responded to a law there in much the same way as immigrants in Alabama, even though the police verification provision never went into effect in Georgia.

“There's a great lesson to be learned there for other states to not make the same mistake,” he says. “Alabama and Georgia have been suffering because these laws have passed… They have seen their workforce shrink and … their agricultural industry suffer significantly with crops rotting on the vine because they have no one to pick their crops.”

Getting up to speed

The law center set up a hotline in Alabama last year to help immigrants and their friends get legal help about the new law. The help line received more than 5,000 calls in its early days, but that number has dwindled as increasingly more parts of the law have been put on hold. Complaints about police, Brooke says, include allegations that they have pulled over cars for not having headlights on during daylight hours and that they have held suspects in jail awaiting handoff to federal immigration officers longer than federal law permits.

For police officers, though, enforcing the law has not always been easy. The sheriff of bankrupt Jefferson County, home to Birmingham, complained he did not have the manpower to take on the new duties at the same time he had to lay off dozens of deputies.

In Clanton, Stilwell says he had to wait for state officials to devise training for his officers. “For weeks and months,” he says, “we're trying to enforce this with no guidance.” The guidance finally came from the state's police standards board, and one of Clanton's own officers was certified to train the rest of his colleagues in the required four-hour session.

Four hours is a short time to get up to speed on immigration law compared to the four weeks the federal government requires local officers to go through before it certifies them for its 287(g) partnership that lets select state and local police enforce federal immigration law. But Alabama's training is more involved than the state-provided guidance for officers in Arizona. There, the state sent DVDs to local departments with training material, and it sends out regular updates to inform the departments which part of that law are currently in effect.

Alabama police took issue with several of the details in the state's initial immigration bill, and convinced lawmakers this spring to tweak it. Stilwell says one of the most significant improvements was to again make driving without a license an arrestable offense, as it had been before the immigration law passed. The change back means that officers no longer have to run immigration checks, which could take an officer three or four hours. Now, the offender is sent to jail, where federal officials routinely screen suspects through the Secure Communities program, which mean local officers do not have to.

Beason, the law's sponsor, says the legal threshold for checking someone's immigration status should be straightforward. “We're not talking about what somebody looks like,” he says. “If you're blue, green, purple or orange, if you don't have identification and you're driving on the highways… when we don't have you in the computers, that's a good reason to try to figure out who you are.”

But lawmakers went a step further this year to help police navigate the tricky boundaries of what is a legal immigration status check, after the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to 156 sheriff's offices and police departments warning them that they could lose federal funding or face federal lawsuits if they discriminated against minorities while enforcing the law.

The agency specifically warned against “unlawful stopping, questioning, searching, detaining or arresting of persons in violation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments or in the targeting of racial or ethnic minorities in the violation of the 14th Amendment.”

Alabama lawmakers decided the Justice Department  “unnecessarily and recklessly threatened Alabama law enforcement” with threats of personal lawsuits and directed the state attorney general to defend any officers whom the feds sue personally.

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