In its fight with the state over immigration, President Obama’s Justice Department is treating Alabama as if it hasn’t changed since the ugly segregationist days of the 1960s.
Justice lawyers have asked federal courts to strike down Alabama’s tough, new immigration law that has sent Hispanics, presumably in America illegally, fleeing the state. And the department has also set up a hotline in Alabama to flush out reports of civil rights violations against immigrants, legal or illegal.
The hotline prompted Alabama attorney general Luther Strange, in an appearance on Fox News this week, to accuse the Justice Department of playing politics. “The hotline, to me, smacks of politics,” Strange said. “The Justice Department is stuck in the 1960s as it relates to Alabama. They overlook 50-plus years of fantastic progress.”
Strange didn’t use the phrase “race card.” But some Alabama officials suspect the Obama administration wants to exploit the state’s racial past and liken its treatment of Hispanic immigrants to the way blacks were treated decades ago. And by taking aggressive action, the president’s support among Hispanic voters might improve.
Last week, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, Tom Perez, spoke at a forum on the immigration law hosted by the Birmingham-Metro chapter of the NAACP. He said the goal of the hotline is “to learn” of civil rights violations. “If we don’t receive information, it’s impossible for us to figure out if civil rights laws are implicated.”
On Fox News, Strange said the hotline is “really an affront to our good men and women in law enforcement who are going to protect the rights of all our citizens. There’s nothing in this law that allows anyone to profile someone. We would never tolerate that.”
Strange, Governor Robert Bentley, and state legislators insist a strong law to curb illegal immigration is necessary because the federal government has failed to enforce immigration laws effectively. “Unfortunately, by failing to do its job, the federal government has left the problem of dealing with illegal immigration to the states,” Bentley said last week.
The law was passed in June by Alabama’s first Republican-controlled legislature since Reconstruction. Bentley and Strange are Republicans.
Parts of the law have been stripped by two federal courts. But the law itself has been upheld, including the right of police to ask one about his immigration status during a traffic stop. Bentley and legislators say they have no intention, at least at this point, of rewriting the law.
It remains highly controversial in Alabama. On Tuesday, the Birmingham News criticized the measure in a strongly worded editorial that quoted Alabama congresswoman Terri Sewell as saying it “has cast a dark cloud over Alabama.”
While Bentley and Strange are “determined to carry on,” the editorial said, “it is clear from the rulings of the U.S. District Court in Birmingham and the 11th U.S. Circuit panel in Atlanta that Alabama’s law badly overreached. The better course would be for the Legislature to reconsider and pass something more reasonable, but we won’t hold our breath.”