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."
Religious leaders maintain that Alabama's immigration law, as it stands now, would punish those who seek to assist immigrants or even transport them to worship services. Gov. Bentley and Republican leaders in the Legislature, however, argue that now is the time for the state to get a handle on illegal immigration.
"We have a real problem with illegal immigration in this country. I campaigned for the toughest immigration laws, and I'm proud of the Legislature for working tirelessly to create the strongest immigration bill in the country," Bentley said shortly after signing the bill into law.
Those who oppose all or parts of the law say that it's mean-spirited and will have a negative impact on the Alabama economy while delivering yet another race-based bruise to a state that was a major battleground in the fight for civil rights.
"This law revisits the state's painful racial past and tramples the rights of all Alabama residents," said Mary Bauer, legal director of the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center. "It should never become the law of the land."
The Greater Birmingham Ministries' Douglas said that faith groups in Alabama began discussions about immigration long before the Legislature passed the anti-immigration law. The Alabama Faith Council was formed about six years ago, he explained, bringing together Christians, Jews, Muslims and other faiths.
"We said, let's come together on those things we can agree on. For all of us, there is the basic text: 'Extend preferential love for the least of these.' That includes assisting strangers among us. Jesus was a stranger," Douglas said.
While Judge Blackburn has temporarily delayed enforcement of the law, Douglas pointed out that this does not mean victory. However, "I'm happy to know that she is taking time to do more research," he said. "I think it's an indication that she is not going to pass all of it."
At a rally scheduled for Sept. 1 at 5:30 p.m. in downtown Birmingham, faith leaders again will call together those who oppose the law. "We have to persevere," Douglas said. "Fear is what drives much of the popular support for the new law. We have to temper that sense of fear."
Denise Stewart is a freelance writer in Alabama.