Examining immigration: Should Alabama mimic new Arizona regulations?

By JAN GRIFFEY/Editor

Shelby County Sheriff Chris Curry’s hands — and those of his deputies — are tied.

So are those of Alabaster police officers and every other local law enforcement officer when it comes to enforcing immigration laws.

“If you are in this country illegally, that is not a criminal act,” Curry said. “If you are here illegally, that’s a civil issue,” and outside the scope of authority of state and local law enforcement.

Hence, the firestorm of controversy unleashed in April of this year when Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed legislation aimed at identifying, prosecuting and deporting illegal immigrants. The Arizona legislation is thought to be the strictest proposed in this country in generations.

“From what I understand, the Arizona immigration law was a mirror of the federal statute. It would give to state and local officials the same authority federal officials have,” in enforcing immigration laws, Curry said.

Some here say Alabama needs immigration legislation like Arizona’s.

However, the core of the Arizona laws, which were set to take effect in August, were blocked last minute by a ruling by a U.S. district judge. Arizona quickly appealed, but their request for an expedited hearing was denied and a hearing on the issue won’t be held until early November.

Many think the question of the constitutionality of the Arizona laws will make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a nutshell, the Arizona legislation, if it becomes law, would make the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and give police broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.

Specifically, the Arizona legislation requires police officers to detain those they suspect are in the country without authorization and to verify their immigration status with federal officials, unless doing so would hinder an investigation or emergency medical treatment.

It also makes not carrying immigration papers a misdemeanor state crime.

The legislation also allows citizens to sue local governments and agencies they think are not enforcing federal or state immigration laws.

Those opposing the law say it will lead to harassment and discrimination against Hispanics, regardless of their citizenship status. Opponents say the law is simply racial and ethnic profiling.

Arizona’s governor said the law “represents another tool for our state to use as we work to solve a crisis we did not create and the federal government has refused to fix.”

Not a simple matter

Curry said the issue “isn’t easy. If you are here without a work visa or a student visa – if you have none of those things – it’s a civil issue. Only federal authorities can take any action on that. We can’t deport them. We can’t issue them a citation or summons to put them in federal court. It’s a civil matter. Simply being here without proper document is not a criminal offense.”

Often, not even committing a crime will lead to deportation of an illegal immigrant.

“If they commit a crime, major or minor, then we have increased ability to determine their status. But the realities are, they are likely not to rise to the level to get them deported,” Curry said. “If they commit a serious felony, that’s a deportable matter.”

He said the Shelby County Jail routinely receives visits from ICE officers, who reviews the county’s jail population and determines whether an illegal immigrant’s crime rises to the level of potential deportation.

Curry warned that illegal immigration issues are not an Hispanic issue.

“The same rules apply to Vietnamese, Ukranian – many other nationalities who are in this country illegally,” he said.

Serving notice

State Rep. Mike Hill, R-Columbiana, was cosponsor of an immigration bill last term in the state legislature.

That bill made it out of committee, Hill said, but didn’t make it to the floor for a vote.

“It wasn’t quite as strong as the Arizona bill. It said if you are illegal, you shouldn’t be working in Alabama. It didn’t saw we’re going to pick you up and throw you out, nor did it call for penalizing your employer for not verifying your work status,” Hill said.

The bill – and what he thinks Alabama needs – was more of a statement.

“It’s something that we will pass sooner or later. We have to do it. We have lots of people out of work in the State of Alabama. I don’t mind anybody who is here with a work visa or who wants to become a citizen. But otherwise, you are taking jobs from Alabama citizens who need them,” Hill said. “Illegal immigrants are taking advantage of our health services and our schools and that’s just not fair.”

Hill said, while the law he proposes doesn’t have teeth, it puts illegals and employers on notice.

“It says, ‘We don’t want you here. You need to move to another state that doesn’t care.’ ” Hill said.

A people issue

Isabel Rubio is executive director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, based in Birmingham.

“When we talk about immigration, we’re talking about people,” Rubio said. “We do believe we need to have federal immigration reform. This is not an issue that needs to be addressed at the state level.

“Immigration is critical to this country. It’s an important part of workforce development for the entire country, which is why we need to address this now — on a federal level,” she said.