BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The police chief of a small town in the Appalachian foothills of Alabama didn’t know what to do about checking the immigration status of a Hispanic man his department recently arrested on an old warrant. So he didn’t do anything.
Alabama’s strict new immigration law, which was largely upheld Wednesday by a federal judge, requires police to jail anyone who can’t prove he or she is in the country legally.
Much of the law goes into effect immediately, but that doesn’t mean there will be mass roundups of thousands of illegal immigrants anytime soon. Across Alabama, police charged with enforcing the nation’s toughest law targeting illegal immigrants are trying to figure out how to enforce the law and pay for it.
The police chief, Chris West, and his three officers patrol Crossville, a rural town of 1,300 people that adjoins a Hispanic community of hundreds and maybe more. The nearest jail is 20 miles away. The law is complicated and they have little money for training.
“Right now we’re waiting to find out what’s in the law, and then we’re going to start enforcing it,” he said.
The law is described by both supporters and opponents as the toughest state law in the U.S. targeting illegal immigrants. U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn, a Republican appointee, wrote in a 115-page opinion Wednesday that some parts of the GOP-backed law conflict with federal statutes, but others don’t. Left standing were several key elements that help make the Alabama law stricter than similar laws passed in Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia.
Among other things, Alabama’s law requires public school officials to check the immigration status of students, though they still can attend. Authorities can hold suspected illegal immigrants without bond and state courts are barred from enforcing contracts involving illegal immigrants. It’s a misdemeanor for illegal immigrants to not have immigration papers.
Now police are trying to make sense of what their officers should do when they pull over Hispanic motorists or patrol communities that are home to the estimated 185,000 Hispanic people now in the state.
“We just need to know what to do without getting everyone in trouble,” said Boaz Police Chief Terry Davis, president of an association of 365 Alabama police chiefs. “We’re all sort of confused right now.”
In Coffee County, where poultry plants and the annual tomato harvest are magnets for immigrants seeking work, Sheriff David Sutton said holding suspected illegal immigrants could cause overcrowding in his 124-bed jail, particularly because no one knows how long it might take federal officers to pick up people for possible deportation.
“We are going to enforce the law. But we are not going to seek out and search out. I don’t have the manpower for that,” he said.
In Birmingham’s Jefferson County, which is trying to avoid filing the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, Chief Deputy Randy Christian said deputies can’t begin arresting suspected illegal immigrants until they get training, which the county can’t afford.
“I am more concerned on where we will put the ones we detain,” Christian wrote in an email. “We have a jail built for 900 inmates that is already overcrowded and averaging 1,200 inmates a day. It’s another unfunded mandate to a county struggling to keep its head above water.”
Bobby Timmons, executive director of the Alabama Sheriffs Association, said there are many questions yet to be answered, including who’s responsible for the medical bills of detained illegal immigrants and what happens if federal agents don’t pick up an illegal immigrant promptly.
“If the federal people don’t come and get him, how long do I hold him?” Timmons said.
“We ain’t got no money. We are looking at the dollar factor,” he said.
The governor said it will be up to the city or county jails to bear the costs of medical bills, and he is counting on federal authorities to assist Alabama in enforcing the new law.
“We expect the federal government to enforce the law that’s there. We are almost forcing their hand to do that,” Bentley said.
The law also could spell financial trouble for the state’s agriculture industry, which relies on immigrant labor to harvest and process crops. Americans generally won’t do the backbreaking work despite pay that usually is well above minimum wage.
Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan said his agency is trying to find a solution, but some crops may rot in the fields as workers leave the state rather than face arrest under the law.
“We have seen the enormous difficulties farmers, especially those in produce and poultry, have encountered as a result of the new immigration law,” he said. “The economic hardship to farmers and agribusinesses will reverberate throughout Alabama’s economy, as one-fifth of all jobs in our state come from farming.”
North Alabama grower Jeremy Calvert, of Bremen, said he and other farmers would prefer hiring native Alabamians for field work, but it’s just not possible. Calvert and other farmers have asked legislators to amend the law, possibly by carving out an exception for agriculture, but any changes are at least weeks away, and possibly much longer.
“It’s a real shame that a working farmer has to break the law now just to make a living,” he said.