The Alabama Legislature opened its session on March 1 on a note of humility and compassion. In the Senate, a Christian pastor asked God to grant members “wisdom and discernment” to do what is right. “Not what’s right in their own eyes,” he said, “but what’s right according to your word.” Soon after, both houses passed, and the governor signed, the country’s cruelest, most unforgiving immigration law.
The law, which takes effect Sept. 1, is so inhumane that four Alabama church leaders — an Episcopal bishop, a Methodist bishop and a Roman Catholic archbishop and bishop — have sued to block it, saying it criminalizes acts of Christian compassion. It is a sweeping attempt to terrorize undocumented immigrants in every aspect of their lives, and to make potential criminals of anyone who may work or live with them or show them kindness.
It effectively makes it a crime to be an undocumented immigrant in Alabama, by criminalizing working, renting a home and failing to comply with federal registration laws that are largely obsolete. It nullifies any contracts when one party is an undocumented immigrant. It requires the police to check the papers of people they suspect to be here illegally.
The new regime does not spare American citizens. Businesses that knowingly employ illegal immigrants will lose their licenses. Public school officials will be required to determine students’ immigration status and report back to the state. Anyone knowingly “concealing, harboring or shielding” an illegal immigrant could be charged with a crime, say for renting someone an apartment or driving her to church or the doctor.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Justice Department have also sued, calling the law an unconstitutional intrusion on the federal government’s authority to write and enforce immigration laws. The A.C.L.U. warns that the law would trample people’s fundamental rights to speak and travel freely, effectively deny children the chance to go to school and expose people to harassment and racial profiling.
These arguments have been made before, in opposition to similar, if less sweeping, laws passed in Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia. What is remarkable in Alabama is the separate lawsuit by the four church leaders, who say the law violates their religious freedoms to perform acts of charity without regard to the immigration status of those they minister to or help.
“The law,” Archbishop Thomas Rodi of Mobile said in The Times, “attacks our core understanding of what it means to be a church.”
You’d think that any state would think twice before embracing a law that so vividly brings to mind the Fugitive Slave Act, the brutal legal and law-enforcement apparatus of the Jim Crow era, and the civil-rights struggle led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But waves of anti-immigrant hostility have made many in this country forget who and what we are.
Congress was once on the brink of an ambitious bipartisan reform that would have enabled millions of immigrants stranded by the failed immigration system to get right with the law. This sensible policy has been abandoned. We hope the church leaders can waken their fellow Alabamans to the moral damage done when forgiveness and justice are so ruthlessly denied. We hope Washington and the rest of the country will also listen.