The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Aftermath of Arizona’s S.B. 1070

Catherine Han Montoya and Ron Bigler

On December 12, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would review a federal appeals court decision striking down key parts of Arizona’s anti-immigration law, S.B. 1070. The Obama administration had challenged the Arizona law—and other “copycat” laws in Utah, Alabama, and South Carolina—on the grounds that such laws encroach on the federal government’s exclusive authority under the Constitution to regulate immigration policy.

Many advocates hope the Court’s decision will stop the wave of anti-immigrant laws crashing over the nation in the wake of S.B. 1070’s adoption in April 2010. In the meantime, efforts to enact copycat laws are meeting resistance from new multiethnic coalitions that are forming in states such as South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia.

Southern Copycat Laws
By the fall of 2010, the legislatures of seven southern states—Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, Florida, South Carolina, and North Carolina—indicated that Arizona copycat bills would be introduced during the 2011 legislative session.

The results have been mixed. While S.B. 1070 copycat bills were defeated in Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and North Carolina, harsh and discriminatory anti-immigrant laws were enacted in Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama:

  • In Georgia, H.B. 87 was signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal on May 13.
  • In Alabama, the state legislature passed H.B. 56, which Gov. Robert Bentley signed into law on June 9. H.B. 56 is considered the most repressive anti-immigrant law to date, even surpassing Arizona’s S.B. 1070. The new Alabama law makes it a state crime to be in the state without documentation; requires schools to collect information on the citizenship or immigration status of the students; and requires all businesses in the state to enroll in the federal E-Verify program.
  • South Carolina’s S.B. 20 was signed into law by Gov. Nikki Haley on June 27. Although less punitive than Alabama’s law, S.B. 20 still makes it a crime to be in the state without documentation.

A review of these legislative battles reveals that anti-immigrant extremists have been most successful in states where the Latino population is small but growing. As legislatures in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and elsewhere started introducing their own S.B.1070-type laws, advocates from across the region began looking into ways to challenge them. But it would soon become apparent that opponents lacked the ability to mobilize in numbers and with force strong enough to defeat the bills.

A case in point is South Carolina, a state with a growing immigrant population and a diverse cross-section of multiethnic communities. While the conservative makeup of the state legislature made defeating S.B. 20 unlikely, advocates saw an opportunity to use the bill as a way to build a broad, multiethnic coalition that would be able to respond to the implementation of S.B. 20 and other attacks on civil and human rights, and that would work to build a new civil and human rights agenda in the state.

Due to the unprecedented level of activity by activists in South Carolina, S.B. 20 was stalled in the regular session of the South Carolina legislature that ended on June 2. It was later passed in a special session and signed by South Carolina’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley, on June 27.

What’s Next
The South Carolina law, along with others in Georgia and Alabama, is now facing strong legal challenges. Federal judges enjoined the most egregious sections of Georgia’s H.B. 87 and South Carolina’s S.B. 20. In September, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Blackburn enjoined some parts of Alabama’s H.B. 56 but inexplicably upheld its most repugnant and discriminatory aspectsprovisions that had been struck down by nearly every other court that had considered these laws.

While the passage of S.B. 20 in South Carolina had been anticipated, the foundation has now been laid in the state for a broad and diverse coalition to challenge the law’s implementation, as well as to provide support for passage of comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level. In many ways, the need to organize new coalitions to combat extremist anti-immigrant laws at the state level has been of born of necessity, and is to a large degree the result of the failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level. Whether the Supreme Court will bolster the need for uniform federal immigration laws and rein in the states on their anti-immigrant efforts, or instead stoke the backlash against immigrants in the United States remains to be seen.

Catherine Han Montoya is senior field program manager for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund and directs The Leadership Conference Immigration Field Project. Ron Bigler is the new media manager for The Leadership Conference and The Education Fund.

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