What Alabama’s immigration ruling means for the U.S.

Cliff Sims Founder and CEO, Yellowhammer Strategies
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As it turns out, Alabama and Arizona may play a more important role in shaping national immigration policy than many Americans would have ever imagined.

Last year Arizona enacted the country’s strictest anti-illegal immigration law. The bill, SB 1070, was signed into law by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer in April of 2010 and immediately revived the national debate on immigration, making it one of the leading issues in the midterm elections.

Lawsuits from the U.S. government and multiple others led to U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton, a Clinton appointee, allowing the law to take effect but without certain controversial provisions — most notably the section that required officers to check a person’s immigration status while enforcing other laws. This ruling was ultimately upheld by the left-leaning 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The spotlight has since swung to Alabama, which has been entrenched in an immigration battle of its own. The Republican-held state legislature — the first majority GOP legislature in Alabama since Reconstruction — passed HB 56, which many have said unseated the Arizona law as the nation’s toughest immigration policy. Republican Gov. Robert Bentley signed the bill into law on June 9.

The U.S. government, church leaders and civil rights groups quickly sued to block the law, prompting U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn, a George H.W. Bush appointee, to issue a provisional order delaying its enforcement on August 29 — two days before it was scheduled to take effect.

On Wednesday, Judge Blackburn gave a final ruling on the requested injunction. The ruling blocked some of the law’s controversial provisions but, unlike the Arizona ruling, upheld the requirement for police to determine the status of suspected illegal immigrants. Judge Blackburn also noted in her 115-page ruling on the Alabama law that it is not “inconsistent with the purpose of Congress to do that which Congress has already done.”

Judge Blackburn’s decision will now make its way to the more conservative 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Given the ideological differences between the 9th and 11th Circuits, the appeal of the Alabama ruling could set up a “circuit split” over the constitutionality of very similar state immigration law provisions.

Cameron Smith, the general counsel for the Alabama Policy Institute, explains, “Even though the current rulings deal with blocking provisions of the law from taking effect, these opinions often telegraph the judges’ ultimate rulings on the merits. If, as the process moves forward, circuit courts arrive at different constitutional conclusions about essentially the same legislative language, the Supreme Court is much more likely to take up the issue.”

In August of this year, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer appealed to the Supreme Court in the wake of the 9th Circuit’s ruling. “I am hopeful that the U.S. Supreme Court will choose to take this case and issue much-needed clarity for states such as Arizona that are grappling with the significant human and financial costs of illegal immigration,” Brewer said.

As more states take up the issue of immigration enforcement, the need for the Supreme Court to weigh in on the matter will increase exponentially. If the Supreme Court does weigh in, its ruling could have significant national implications.

Cliff Sims is the chairman of the Alabama College Republicans and founder of Generation NOW, an organization formed to educate and empower a new generation of leaders.