Implications unclear of illegal immigration bill

Published 6:45 pm Thursday, June 9, 2011

Gov. Robert Bentley on Thursday signed into law what he claims is the nation’s toughest illegal immigration policy.

It’s clear what the law will mean for illegal immigrants: a spotlight around every corner and no mercy if found not to be a citizen of the United States. Less clear is what the law will mean for those charged with upholding the comprehensive law.

Clanton Police Chief Brian Stilwell is concerned.

“I think we need some kind of immigration reform, but we’re going to have an unfunded financial burden placed on the city,” Stilwell said.

CPD made 998 arrests in 2010 and issued 604 citations to illegal immigrants.

Under the new bill, those 604 tickets would turn into arrests, a total Stilwell said would turn into an additional $277,000 CPD would owe the Chilton County Jail.

Stilwell also estimates his department would need to add four officers to keep up with the workload, meaning the bill could mean about a half million dollars per year in additional expenses for Stilwell’s department, not factoring in additional police cruisers, fuel and other costs.

“I already need to add officers because of our increased call volume,” Stilwell said. “I don’t believe there was a whole lot of consultation with local municipal officers.”

State Sen. Cam Ward said he thinks the bill will eventually cause the number of arrests to dwindle because many illegal immigrants will leave the state.

“The immigration problem in Alabama is the worst it’s ever been,” Ward said. “It’s a crisis not only here but across the country.”

The bill, which was modeled after a similar law passed in Arizona, would require public schools to determine students’ immigration status, police to arrest anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant and employers to use a federal system to determine if immigrants are in the country legally, among other stipulations.

Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center have already declared their intentions to challenge the bill.

Like Ward, Rep. Kurt Wallace voted in favor of the bill. Both lawmakers cited the economic burden illegal immigrants place on the state (“It’s just not right,” Wallace said).

Wallace said he considered the bill’s effect on Chilton County, which experienced a 197 percent increase in its Hispanic population from 2000 to 2010, but was reassured after talking to local peach growers.

“I’ve had peach farmers tell me, you can get them here legally, there’s a bona fide way of getting them in,” Wallace said about programs employers can use to bring in foreign workers.

But Wallace said funding for local agencies who suddenly have increased responsibilities wasn’t discussed by the Legislature, and both he and Ward said they understood concerns about the bill.

Chilton County Superintendent of Education Dave Hayden said he was somewhat familiar with the bill but unsure exactly what it would mean for schools.

“At this point, I’m going to have to meet with our lawyers and figure this out,” Hayden said. “As far as verifying that every student is legal, I’m not sure how we’re going to do that sometimes.”

Hayden said he hopes to learn more about the bill at a meeting next week of the School Superintendents of Alabama.

Another significant impact of the bill is that police and potential employers would be required to check residency status of suspected illegal immigrants through the E-Verify system, a national database of U.S. citizens.

Anyone determined to be in the country illegally would be jailed until picked up by the Immigration and Naturalization Services. Currently, such a pick up takes less than 24 hours, said Chilton County Sheriff Kevin Davis, who oversees the jail.

The Chilton County Jail can house 186 inmates, Davis said, and averages between 150-160 at a time. So, the new bill could cause strain at some point.

“There’s a lot of concern from us, but I don’t stress over a whole lot of stuff that’s unknown,” Davis said. “The Legislature has all the information in front of them, so if they feel like it will make our state a better state, a safer state, then we’ll do what we need to do.”

Wallace said the bill’s success would depend on INS continuing to pick up illegal immigrants from county jails at a reasonable rate.

Another concern is that with a greater threat of deportation, illegal immigrants are unlikely to pay fines they owe to cities and counties.

A suspect facing deportation may also be more likely to run from police officers pulling him over for, say, speeding.

Stilwell wonders what an officer’s course of action would be if he pulls over a Hispanic family, with the children being legal citizens and the mother an illegal immigrant.

“What happens to the children?” asked Stilwell, who, like others, has more questions than answers about Alabama’s new illegal immigration policy.