Alabama set a new national standard for get-tough immigration policy Thursday with Gov. Robert J. Bentley's signing of a law that surpasses Arizona's SB 1070, with provisions affecting law enforcement, transportation, apartment rentals, employment and education.
The new law, combined with legislation passed in May by neighboring Georgia, has arguably made this swath of the Deep South the nation's hottest immigration battleground, with the region's troubled racial history fueling the fire.
Opponents here, perhaps predictably, often refer to that history in denouncing new laws they deem to be not only unconstitutional but motivated by bigotry.
The 72-page legislation known as HB 56 also touches on issues as diverse as contract law and voter registration. It makes Alabama the fourth state, after Georgia, Utah and Indiana, to follow Arizona's lead in enacting significant statewide immigration laws, potentially mollifying those voters frustrated with Washington's perceived failure to deal with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S.
Other states, including California, Florida, Nevada and Texas, have seen SB 1070-style bills fail during this year's legislative sessions, and portions of the Arizona law — including the provision requiring police to check the immigration status of those they stop and suspect are in the country illegally — have been blocked by a federal judge and may land before the Supreme Court.
The American Civil Liberties Union declared its intention Thursday to file a lawsuit opposing HB 56, arguing that it would invite racial profiling and require police to "demand 'papers' from people they stop whom they suspect are not authorized to be in the U.S."
"This draconian initiative signed into law this morning by Gov. Robert Bentley is so oppressive that even Bull Connor himself would be impressed," said Wade Henderson, head of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, referring to Birmingham's notorious segregationist public safety commissioner from the civil rights era. "HB 56 is designed to do nothing more than terrorize the state's Latino community."
Inside and outside Alabama, however, proponents of a more robust immigration policy praised the law, whose main legislative sponsors included a construction company owner and an electrical contractor.
"We have a real problem with illegal immigration in this country," Bentley, a first-term Republican governor and Southern Baptist deacon, said after signing the law, according to wire service reports. "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."
Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, said he expected the law to be effective in curbing illegal immigration.
"I think this shows one more case of states moving to do what the Obama administration is unwilling to do," Krikorian said. "This wouldn't be happening if the administration were credible on enforcement, but it's just not."
In an echo of the Arizona law, the Alabama legislation requires that police, in the course of any lawful "stop, detention or arrest," make a reasonable attempt to determine a person's citizenship and immigration status, given a "reasonable suspicion" that the person is an immigrant, unless doing so would hinder an investigation.
It outlaws illegal immigrants from receiving any state or local public benefits, bars them from enrolling in or attending public colleges, and prohibits them from applying for or soliciting work.
It forbids the harboring and transport of illegal immigrants, and outlaws renting them property or "knowingly" employing them for any work within the state. It also makes it a "discriminatory practice" to fire, or decline to hire, a legal resident when an illegal one is on the payroll.
The law criminalizes "dealing in false identification documents" and, beginning April 1, will require every business in the state to verify employees' immigration status using the federal E-Verify system.
It deems invalid any contract to which an illegal immigrant is a party if the legal party in the contract has "direct or constructive knowledge" that the other person was in the country illegally. And it requires a citizenship check for people registering to vote.
For opponents, one of the most disturbing provisions is a requirement that officials in K-12 public schools determine whether students are illegal immigrants. It will not ban the students from schools, but rather require every school district to submit an annual report on the number of presumed illegal immigrants to the state education board.
But Ali Noorani, head of the National Immigration Forum, fears that simply asking parents about their children's immigration status will cause them to pull their kids from school.
"At the end of the day, for a teacher to be required to act as an immigration agent and ask a student for their immigration status will have a chilling effect on immigrant families, and it will lead to discrimination," he said.
Krikorian, whose group supports stricter laws against illegal residents, said many of the Alabama provisions were entirely new.
Others are similar to immigration enforcement efforts by state and local governments. Last month, the Supreme Court upheld an Arizona law that required businesses to use the federal E-Verify database.
Based on that decision, the high court this month ordered a lower court to reconsider its rejection of a much-publicized law in Hazleton, Pa., that would have denied illegal immigrants business permits and penalized landlords who rented property to them.
The wave of Latino immigration in recent decades has not transformed Alabama as dramatically as it has other states, but the presence of the new arrivals has been felt.
People of "Hispanic or Latino origin" currently make up about 3.9% of Alabama's population of 4.8 million, according to Census Bureau figures. The state was home to about 120,000 "unauthorized immigrants" in 2010, up from an estimated 5,000 in 1990, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.