Law on hold-Local officials thankful for immigration law delay

Published 9:40 am Wednesday, August 31, 2011

While a judge’s ruling this week has for now halted implementation of a new immigration law in Alabama, local officials continue to be wary of how to prepare for the changes it could bring.

U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn — a Brewton native — on Monday issued a temporary injunction against the immigration legislation until she can review its constitutionality. Now set to take effect Sept. 28, it was to have been implemented starting Thursday.

If the law does take effect as passed, it will mean changes for tax collectors’ offices and sheriff’s departments across the state.

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The extensive law would require law enforcement to detain someone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant if the person cannot provide documentation.

Sheriff Grover Smith said the law has its good points, but its implementation leaves a lot to be desired.

“The intent of the law is good,” Smith said. “But, the mechanism to put it into place is fatally flawed. This law is asking me to get a fly swatter and run all the mosquitoes out of the county. I can’t do it. It’s unfair to shift the burden of this law to state and local government. We need to make the people in Washington enforce the laws already on the books and not transfer the responsibility down here.”

The law would also require new identity checks for anyone applying for a car tag.

Escambia County Tax Collector Joy Wiggins said the injunction of the immigration law has allowed her office to continue doing business as usual — at least for now.

“We were doing everything to get prepared just in case this law went into effect on Sept. 1,” Wiggins said. “I was certainly relieved to hear about the injunction At least it will give us a few more days to be prepared.”

The main problem facing Wiggins’ office if the law is approved will be an issue of time.

“The changes we will have to make because of the law will be very time consuming,” Wiggins said. “This law will require our staff to verify every person’s citizenship before we can do business with them.

“That’s not just a few people who come in, but every person. That verification process will certainly slow us down and will create longer waits for everyone who comes into the office. I can imagine how angry some people will get with the new requirements and with the longer waits.”

Longer waits will also face those who are detained by sheriff’s officers as well, Smith said.

“If this law goes into effect it will become the number one responsibility of law enforcement in Alabama,” Smith said. “That means that drugs, theft and bodily harm will be number two on our list of things to do.”

Smith said every person detained by officers will first have to have their citizenship verified according to the proposed law.

“I can’t discriminate because of race,” Smith said. “That means anyone who can’t verify citizenship will be detained. The Immigration and Naturalization Board and the Border Patrol have already told me they are not coming up here and they won’t accept anyone we pick up. Right now, our jail is built to house 112 inmates. Today we have 206. If this law goes into effect we’ll have 500 here in six months. This is legislation gone amuck.”

The new law has been dubbed “the strongest immigration law in the country” by many officials and organization leaders across the state.

The law would require schools to determine legal residency of students and would criminalize work by illegal immigrants.

Wiggins said while there are strong points in the law that are commendable, the law as it stands could be damaging to the service offered at the local level.

“This law, the way it was created, puts a responsibility on our office that should fall into federal hands, not the county level,” Wiggins said. “We are here to serve the people. It shouldn’t be our responsibility to identify everyone as a U.S. citizen when they come here.

That should already have been done before they arrive. We are here to serve the people and that part of our job is certainly going to change if this law goes into effect.”

If, in fact, the law is only delayed by Blackburn’s injunction order and passes through to implementation Sept. 28, Wiggins said her staff will be ready to take necessary steps to do their job.

“It’s our job to serve the people of this county and that’s what we’re going to do,” Wiggins said. “If it’s the law, I’ll take it and do the best I can.”

An array of organizations have sued to block the law including the U.S. Department of Justice along with civil rights groups and leaders of Alabama’s Catholic, Episcopal and United Methodist Churches.

The groups contend the law holds many criminal and civil penalties for illegal immigrants as well as those who harbor, transport, rent to, employ or enter contracts with them.