A central part of Alabama’s immigration law has become such a thorny problem for this town that the police chief has declared he will no longer enforce it.
Chief Brian Stilwell said that measure — which critics call the show-me-your-papers law — has made immigrants afraid to report crimes and burdened his officers with hours-long investigations. The chief was so troubled by the law that he apologized to a young mother who was turned over to immigration authorities after committing a minor traffic infraction in town.
Supporters of the year-old law point to Alabama’s falling unemployment rate as proof it is working and preserving jobs for U.S. citizens, though not everyone agrees there is a correlation. Alabama state Sen. Scott Beason, one of the law’s architects, says it is also aimed at protecting his state’s taxpayer-funded resources and boosting public safety.
While Beason and Stilwell — both Republicans — have staked out different positions on the law, they agree on one thing: Georgia authorities should use caution when they start enforcing a similar measure. A federal appeals court in Atlanta recently sustained Georgia’s statute following a lawsuit brought by civil rights groups. But the measure remains on hold while the court decides whether to reconsider another decision in the case.
To learn what could be in store for Georgia, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spent weeks reviewing police reports and other public documents and interviewing dozens of state and local officials, farmers and immigrants across Alabama.
A part of Alabama’s comprehensive immigration law requires police to investigate the immigration status of suspects under certain conditions when officers believe they are in the country illegally. The statute also requires police to transfer illegal immigrants to federal authorities if they so request.
The precise impact of the law — which has been in effect since last year — is unclear because Alabama officials are still scrambling to come up with a way to track how many illegal immigrants have been detained and transferred to federal immigration authorities. But the AJC’s investigation shows it has created some unintended consequences:
- Tomato and peach farmers in Blount and Chilton counties say the statute has prompted migrant Hispanic workers to flee, creating labor shortages in Alabama’s $5 billion agricultural industry. The farmers said those labor shortages have prompted them to plant less or participate in a federal guest worker program that boosts their labor costs. The result: Consumers are paying higher prices for Alabama produce.
- Police are applying the law unevenly across the state. Because of recent court battles concerning the law, Birmingham has not directed its officers to enforce it. A Birmingham police spokesman said his department is still reviewing the measure. In contrast, Montgomery and Tuscaloosa police are enforcing it. Critics say such uneven enforcement bolsters their arguments that the law could lead to racial profiling and play havoc with the state’s economy. They said it also underscores the need for a uniform national immigration policy.
Stilwell, Clanton’s police chief, has concluded the law is unenforceable, partly because state lawmakers this year repealed a provision authorizing police to arrest motorists for driving without a license. He added it sometimes takes hours for federal authorities to respond to his officers’ queries about the immigration status of suspects. Worrying that such prolonged stops — without an arrest — could violate people’s constitutional rights, Stilwell said his officers stopped enforcing the law last summer.
In Tuscaloosa, police officers are releasing suspects when it appears it will take too long to confirm their immigration status and if they have no lawful reason to detain them, said Sgt. Brent Blankley, a police spokesman. Like Clanton police, Tuscaloosa officers have been reaching out to Hispanics since Alabama enacted its law. Blankley indicated those efforts have paid off and that Hispanic victims are continuing to report crimes to police.
The Obama administration fought in court to scrap Alabama’s law, saying it is unconstitutional. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil and immigrant rights groups sued to block Georgia’s law, making similar arguments. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta denied those claims last month.
Asked whether they had any advice for Georgia, Beason and Stilwell had similar responses. Stilwell stressed caution. Beason said: “I would just make sure that they dot their i’s and cross all their t’s because the Justice Department will be looking — with the most powerful magnifying glass they can — for any reason to say that someone is doing something inappropriate.”
The huge orange water tower on the edge of town here is impossible to miss. Designed to resemble a giant peach, it beckons motorists traveling along I-65 between Birmingham and Montgomery to stop and explore Clanton. Farmers here brag that their peaches taste sweeter than what their rivals grow in Georgia.
The delicate fruit is picked by hand, requiring many laborers to do the strenuous work. Farmers here say few Americans want to do it. Some try for a few days — or a few hours — and then quit. So the farmers rely heavily on migrant Hispanic laborers.
The region’s farming and construction industries serve as magnets for immigrants. Clanton sits in Chilton County, which saw its Hispanic population nearly triple between 2000 and 2010 to 3,420. That represents about 8 percent of the county’s total population.
Henry Williams grows peaches on about 100 acres just north of Clanton and sells them to roadside stands and outdoor markets in Alabama, Georgia and other states. Williams said 15 of his Hispanic laborers fled after Alabama enacted its immigration law last year. So he started participating in a federal guest worker program. He said that program has increased his labor costs — the biggest share of his budget — by a third since it requires him to pay for much of those foreign workers’ expenses, including their transportation and lodging. Because his costs went up, he raised the prices for his peaches by about 5 percent this year.
Williams predicted some of his friends will shutter their farms. “Most people on my scale are not going to fool with it,” he said. “They are just going to give up. … A lot of them already have.”
When they crafted Alabama’s 72-page immigration legislation last year, state lawmakers focused on preventing illegal immigrants from taking jobs from U.S. citizens. Beason points to the state’s falling unemployment rate as proof that it has worked. The state’s rate was at 8.3 percent in July, down from 9.3 percent in June of last year, when Alabama’s governor signed the measure into law. Beason said people often tell him the law made it easier for them to find work.
Sam Addy, a University of Alabama economist, denies there is a correlation. The state’s unemployment rate has dropped, he said, mainly because the state’s labor force shrank as people retired or stopped seeking work. Meanwhile, Addy said, Alabama has seen some job gains in its auto and manufacturing-related industries.
Addy wrote a sobering report in January that estimated what would happen to the state’s economy if Alabama’s immigration law drives out between 40,000 and 80,000 illegal immigrants earning between $15,000 and $35,000 annually. The results: a loss of up to about 140,000 direct and indirect jobs and $5.8 billion in earnings, $10.8 billion in Alabama’s gross domestic product, and more than $300 million in income and sales tax revenue.
It was getting late and the bugs were trilling in the trees when the Mexican immigrants started returning to their mobile homes. Quiet and sleepy-eyed, they were coated in a thin film of dust and paint from a long day of construction work. Molly Dees greeted them as they trudged home.
Dees is typical of many Clanton-area residents in that she has mixed feelings about illegal immigration. She manages the Green Tree Mobile Home Park just a short walk from downtown Clanton. She said most of her residents are Hispanic immigrants, and she suspects some of them are in the country illegally.
Dees sympathizes with them, saying she understands why they seek a better life in the U.S. At the same time, she resents how they get taxpayer-funded benefits here while sending their earnings back to their families south of the border. She supports the new law.
“If you are a citizen, prove it,” she said. “If you are not and you are breaking the law, go back where you came from.”
Stilwell, the police chief in Clanton, said the law is not as easy to enforce as some may think. The law, he said, has eroded the Hispanic community’s trust in police. He said it has also made the public view police as “the gestapo.”
Clanton police say they have arrested 29 Hispanics for a variety of offenses since the law took effect last year. Six were charged with driving without a license under that law, public records show. One of them had been convicted of murder in Texas and had been deported once before. “Those people … need to be gone,” Stilwell said of the murderer. “We have no problems with that.” At the same time, he speaks regretfully about the mothers of U.S.-born children and the spouses of U.S. citizens who have been ensnared by the law.
Martha Lagunes-Cortes is among them. After illegally entering the country from Mexico as a teenager, she successfully eluded immigration authorities for nearly eight years. A minor traffic infraction finally tripped her up. She remembers her infant son crying when Clanton police took her to jail in December. Lagunes-Cortes, 20, worried she would be deported and separated from her U.S.-born son.
She remembers the night clearly. She said she had just bought some Chinese takeout food for her family and was pulling out of the restaurant parking lot. It was around 7 p.m. and she had forgotten to put on her headlights. A Clanton police officer spotted her driving without lights and pulled her over. He asked her for her driver’s license. She didn’t have one.
Police called state officials to take care of her son, took her to jail for driving without a license and asked federal authorities about her immigration status. The government confirmed she was in the country illegally. A few days later, immigration authorities picked her up from the Chilton County jail, took her to an office in Montgomery, questioned her and took her fingerprints before releasing her.
Lagunes-Cortes said the government is not trying to deport her because she has not committed any serious crimes. She added she is now applying for legal status in connection with her marriage to a U.S. citizen. A federal immigration official declined to comment on her case without her permission, citing privacy reasons. Lagunes-Cortes said she is still traumatized by the experience and is suffering from sleeplessness and weight loss. She decried Alabama’s immigration law, saying: “It is separating families. Everybody is scared. I am still scared.”
Days after immigration authorities released her, Lagunes-Cortes attended a meeting at a church in Clanton. Hundreds of immigrants and others had gathered to learn about their rights amid enforcement of Alabama’s immigration law. She tearfully told the crowd about her experience. Stilwell was there, too. He hugged her and apologized. He regrets how the law has put local police in a difficult position.
“The immigration thing to me is a political fight that we shouldn’t be in,” he said. “We are going to be the bad guys. … It puts us in a really bad spot.”
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