Alabama government workers should not inquire about residents' immigration status under the state's immigration law during certain "business transactions," such as getting water, parking at a meter or renewing mobile home registration, Attorney General Luther Strange wrote in a guidance Friday.
The letter came amid heavy criticism of Section 30 of HB 56, the portion of Alabama's immigration enforcement law that prohibits "business transactions" between the state and people unable to prove they are in the United States legally.
Attempting to have these types of interactions as an undocumented immigrant is a felony under HB 56, which vaguely defines "business transactions" to include common interactions with the government -- such as water services -- not typically thought of as business. Yet applying for a state marriage license as an undocumented immigrant is exempt. Alabama's immigration law mimics Arizona law SB 1070 by allowing police officers and other state workers to inquire about immigration status.
Strange writes in the Dec. 2 memo that Section 30 should not be applied to "all transactions involving traditional business, but rather transactions involving the issuance of official government documents, licenses, or like items of similar formality granting authorization to the person to engage in some activity."
This could keep undocumented immigrants from losing their homes or being denied water under the law, although the attorney general's statement does not ensure those actions will be prevented.
"I was at the house of a family of five last week who does not have water, and they have not had water since the end of October, because the water company won't give them service because of Section 30," said Justin Cox, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the state to block HB 56 and aspects of Section 30. "It remains to be seen whether this attorney general memo is going to change anything on the ground. This is one interpretation of what the law requires, but what really matters is how it's going to apply on the ground."
The ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center sued Alabama in November to block the provision that required mobile home renters or owners to prove they were in the country lawfully. That part of Section 30 could cause undocumented immigrants in the state, some of whom live in mobile homes, to lose their homes because they could not re-register them each year. The full law has also been challenged by a coalition of human rights groups, including the ACLU, and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Failing to receive a current decal for a mobile home is a misdemeanor, but attempting to re-register the home could be a felony under HB 56, putting undocumented immigrants in a difficult position.
A judge issued a temporary restraining order on Nov. 23 to stop the state from using HB 56 to prevent undocumented immigrants from registering mobile homes. The state also extended the deadline for renewing registration by an extra month, to Dec. 31.
Strange's Friday guidance may have been a reaction to controversy over the mobile home decals, Cox said.
"Section 30 in particular and HB 56 generally makes Alabama look terrible, completely inhumane and just mean-spirited," Cox said. "I'm sure that this is a reaction to a lot of the blow-back that's been occurring, specifically with regard to Section 30. But again, words are one thing, actions are something else."
But the law remains somewhat open to interpretation, despite Strange's guidance. In Madison County, Ala., for instance, the county attorney issued written guidance in October saying undocumented immigrants should not be provided with water service or a water meter.
Two top sponsors of HB 56 in the state legislature, Republicans Rep. Micky Hammon and Sen. Scott Beason, said at a hearing on the issue last week that the purpose of the bill is to drive undocumented immigrants out of the state.
"My purpose was to make it difficult for illegal immigrants to live and work in Alabama,"
Hammon said, according to the Associated Press.
Neither legislator responded immediately to requests for comment on Monday about the attorney general's interpretation of the law.
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