PELHAM, Ala. — Moments after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the “show me your papers” provision of Arizona’s immigration law, the switchboard lit up at one of Alabama’s largest Spanish-language radio stations as worried listeners called in.
“They’re wanting to know if they’re going to get stopped or arrested,” said Orlando Rosa, the operations manager for La Jefa.
Alabama offers a glimpse of what may lay ahead for immigrants in several states that passed their own strict immigration laws modeled at least in part on Arizona’s. Of those five states, only Alabama had been allowed by federal courts to enforce the “lawful stop” or “show me your papers” provision until this week.
That could change now that the Supreme Court upheld the section of Arizona’s law that requires police to check the status of people who might appear to be in the U.S. illegally. The court overturned three other parts of the Arizona law.
Georgia, South Carolina, Indiana and Utah also approved laws based on Arizona’s. All or parts of the laws were blocked in each state, and legal challenges can move forward now that the Supreme Court has ruled on the Arizona law.
Already in Alabama, even a chance encounter with police scares many immigrants. But they fear the Supreme Court decision could make things worse.
“Alabama is the lab for this part of the law,” said Mary Bauer, legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery-based advocacy group that is opposing the Alabama law.
Javier Hernandez, who has been living in Alabama without documents for 12 years, spends time before he drives checking things like headlights and blinkers to make sure police don’t have a reason to pull him over.
“You have to always be alert, make sure the cops don’t stop you,” he said through a translator, adding that he entered the country illegally to support his wife and two sons back in Mexico.
In northeast Alabama, where a large number of Hispanic immigrants work in poultry plants, Pastor Fernando Rodriguez moaned when he learned of the Supreme Court’s ruling. With a congregation of about 300 people, he fears the decision will mean Alabama police become more aggressive.
“It’s terrible,” Rodriguez, of Lus a las Naciones in Albertville, said Tuesday. “Right now there is a lot of concern about the cops.”
So far, the worry isn’t translating into a new exodus from Alabama — at least yet. Management at two Birmingham-area mobile home communities with large Hispanic populations said they don’t know of anyone moving out because of the ruling.
Still, some immigrants — both legal and illegal residents — say they are terrified of the requirement. They fear detentions will split families apart.
Many Illegal immigrants in Alabama say they are afraid to leave home, so they often travel at night. Some use cellphones and text messages to avoid police roadblocks. After parts of the law took effect last year, many parents signed legal documents allowing others to care for their children in case they are deported.
Rosa, the radio station worker, said listeners panicked reflexively when they heard something on the news about “Supreme Court,” ”police,” and “immigration,” prompting the flood of calls.
“They’re worried, frustrated, wanting to know how it’s affecting Alabama,” said Rosa.
Critics say the Alabama law already has led to racial profiling, even though the act specifically prohibits it and supporters deny it happens. Opponents say people are being held improperly and charged with random offenses. They say, for example, that a Hispanic car passenger was recently cited and detained for two days for driving without a license when he couldn’t present state troopers with identification after the vehicle was stopped for having an improper tag.
“Folks have been stopped for no other reason than they are Latino,” said Justin Cox, an American Civil Liberties Union who is fighting state immigration laws in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.
A Republican sponsor of Alabama’s law was heartened by the court’s refusal to knock down Arizona’s “show me you papers” provision, also referred to as the “lawful stop” portion of the laws. State Sen. Scott Beason said he hopes the Arizona decision will lead to more frequent checks of identification documents in Alabama.
“I do not believe there has been abuse of the system here,” said Beason. “If someone is stopped with no identification, I think it’s reasonable to say, ‘Let’s stop and figure out who this person is.”
That’s exactly what happened last November in one of the most high-profile cases yet to result from the Alabama law, authorities said.
Police arrested a German employee of Mercedes-Benz who was stopped while driving a rental car without proper identification near the automaker’s car assembly plant. He was released after proving he was in the United States legally.
Critics said the arrest was an example of immigration policy run amok, while Beason says the law worked the way it was supposed to.
GOP sponsors said they wanted to make life so difficult for illegal immigrants they would leave the state, and that’s what happened. Parents kept children home from schools, farm workers left the fields and mobile home communities with large populations of Hispanic immigrants in north Alabama suddenly had vacancies.
The initial fear died down after courts began blocking sections of the law. School absences returned to near-normal levels and at least some families moved back.
Still, state agriculture officials blame the law for a persistent shortage in migrant farm labor.
Mexican citizen Diana Garcia was among those who fled because law, but she returned in March because of a lack of jobs in Texas, where she moved. She said she has steady work with a Birmingham-area company because of a valid Social Security number obtained when her family briefly immigrated when she was a child, but she is otherwise living in the United States illegally.
She keeps an out for police, particularly now that the court has upheld that part of Arizona’s law.
“I am here earning money to support my daughter back in Mexico. I haven’t even seen her in five years,” said Garcia, 28.
After a flurry of lawsuits was filed last year challenging Alabama’s original law, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and lower courts blocked parts of it, and legislators approved an amended version this year authored by Beason. The new law eliminates the need for people to prove their legal residency when renewing business licenses, driver’s licenses, and vehicle tags, but police are still required to ask for identification during traffic stops.
The president of the Alabama Association of Chiefs of Police, Terry Davis, said it may take a while for police departments to sort through the laws and court rulings and begin enforcing it all more uniformly.
“We’re just figuring out which way to go to stay in compliance with federal law and state law and waiting on the 11th Circuit to take it up,” said Davis, police chief in Boaz.