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The Daily Need

Focus on immigration as Supreme Court heads into new term

Tomato farmer Chad Smith looks over his crop on Chandler Mountain in Steele, Ala., Monday, Oct. 3, 2011. The impact of the Alabama Immigration Law will prevent Smith from being able to fully harvest his crop, costing his family nearly $200,000 in revenue and may put them out of business permanently. Photo: AP Photo/Dave Martin

The Supreme Court returned to session last week with a full docket of controversial cases to review. Health care and digital privacy are part of the Court’s highly politicized portfolio this term, but immigration also promises to elicit much scrutiny in the coming months.

The Supreme Court is expected to review Arizona’s SB 1070, a restrictive immigration law passed last year that inspired a glut of other state-level legislation concerned primarily with undocumented immigrants. But although the Court will be focusing on Arizona’s law, it is the recent federal ruling on a similar law in Alabama that provides the backdrop to many of the central immigration issues that the Supreme Court will settle this term.

On September 28, U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn upheld several controversial measures in Alabama’s immigration law, widely considered to be the strictest immigration law in the country. Blackburn upheld a provision allowing schools to verify the immigration status of students upon enrollment, as well as a measure that prohibits renting property to undocumented immigrants.

The ruling also notably upheld a provision allowing local law enforcement to check the immigration status of residents if there is “reasonable suspicion” they may be undocumented. The so-called “papers, please” measure was blocked in Arizona’s federal court, as well as courts reviewing similar legislation in Georgia, Indiana and Utah, creating a legal split that the Supreme Court will have to resolve.

Supporters of such state-level immigration legislation argue that states have the right to create and enforce their own immigration laws, while the federal government maintains that such legislation encroaches on federal authority over immigration policy. The Supreme Court’s decision over SB 1070 will likely clarify the limits of state and local power over matters concerning undocumented residents.

Alabama communities are already undergoing major changes as a result of Blackburn’s ruling, which may be a preview of what may happen elsewhere if the Supreme Court decides to grant states authority over immigration matters. Since the September 28 ruling, Alabama schools reported that large numbers of Latino students have been absent from classes, and many are withdrawing from school completely. Figures from the Alabama Department of Education show that in the days immediately following the ruling, the absentee rate for Latino students in Alabama schools doubled.

School officials and the Alabama Department of Education have begun efforts to assure families that the law will not affect their children’s ability to receive a public education. Although schools can verify the status of students to provide “statistical data,” the law does not state that undocumented students will be barred from attending school or that they will be turned over to immigration officials. Dropout numbers affect school funding, and a mass exodus of students would inevitably cause funds to shrink. Still, the spike in student absences and withdrawals indicate that the enforced law has provoked a strong atmosphere of fear for Alabama’s immigrant community. The Southern Poverty Law Center has warned that the law is “on the verge of creating a humanitarian crisis for immigrants in the state – regardless of their immigration status.”

Alabama’s communities had already begun to feel the effect of HB 56 even before U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn issued the ruling two weeks ago. Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan  said that that immigrant farm laborers had begun leaving the state as soon as the law was passed in early June, leaving unattended produce to rot in the fields. Some supporters of the law, however, have stated that these incidents are short-term economic disruptions and that other local workers will replenish the labor pool.

It’s not yet clear how long these trends will continue, how many more families and workers plan to leave, or how migration patterns might affect neighboring states. But the Supreme Court’s decision this term could have an impact reaching far beyond the state lines of Arizona and Alabama.

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