Racial Profiling and Alabama’s Copycat Law

The state takes a page from Arizona's immigration law, though a judge has delayed the new law's enforcement.

A federal judge in Alabama has delayed for one month the enforcement of that state’s tough new immigration law, set to go into effect this Thursday, Sept. 1.

Responding to challenges to the suit from the U.S. Department of Justice, social-justice groups and religious organizations around the country, Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn on Monday indicated that she needs more time to determine whether all or parts of the law are constitutional.

Alabama’s new law, which requires members of law enforcement to check the immigration status of individuals they suspect of being in the country illegally, is quite similar to an anti-immigration law enacted last year in Arizona. However, it goes further by making it a crime to knowingly transport an undocumented immigrant and requires school officials to determine the immigration status of students and their parents.

As in Arizona, the Alabama law has brought complaints from law enforcement. Sheriff Mike Hale in Jefferson County, Ala., said that deputies will have to spend much of their time checking the status of individuals, when that department already has fewer folks on patrol because of budget cuts.

And Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, said that the law will open the door to racial profiling of people who are viewed to be more likely to have undocumented status. Illegal immigration from Mexico is frequently the focus of policy discussions about immigration. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 3 percent of Alabama’s population is Hispanic — 70 percent of whom are of Mexican origin.

Last week a small multiracial group held hands and stood in a circle, holding a vigil before a hearing for a temporary injunction to be placed on the immigration law. And in June, not long after Republican Gov. Robert Bentley signed the new law, a coalition of faith-based groups organized a march through downtown Birmingham. Though hundreds had traveled these same routes in years past during civil rights marches, this one was different.

There were lots of browns, blacks and whites. There were Christians, Jews, Catholics and you-name-its. There were no songs sung like “We Shall Overcome.” On that Saturday, there was silence, broken only by prayer and the lighting of candles.

Around that same time, William H. Willimon, the white bishop of the state’s predominantly white United Methodist Church conference, wrote a letter calling on Bentley, also a Southern Baptist deacon, to halt the enforcement of the law.

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that, just as Christians have a moral duty to obey just laws, they also have a moral duty to disobey unjust ones. We are a group of United Methodist ministers from all across the state of Alabama who believe that HB 56 is an unjust law,” Willimon wrote.

The bishop was referencing King’s 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” 6,800 words scribbled in the margins of a newspaper. As King sat locked up in a dingy cell, he challenged the clergy who were standing on the sidelines of the nonviolent protest and questioning his involvement as “unwise and untimely.”