05/28/2013

Immigrant rights groups file amicus brief urging Louisiana Supreme Court to strike down anti-immigrant law

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation Immigrants’ Rights Project (ACLU-IRP), and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Louisiana (ACLU-LA) today filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Louisiana Supreme Court in the cases of State v. Bonifacio Ramirez and State v. Marquez, challenging a state law that puts foreign exchange students and construction workers rebuilding the state after hurricanes Katrina, Isaac and Rita at risk of a felony conviction for doing nothing more than driving a car.  

 “This law is clearly unconstitutional and places a tremendous burden on citizens and non-citizens alike,” said Meredith Stewart, SPLC staff attorney. “As federal lawmakers are working hard to fix our broken immigration system, such state attempts at regulating immigration are unproductive and are a drain on local law enforcement resources. We urge the Louisiana Supreme Court to find the law unconstitutional.”

The law, called “operating a vehicle without lawful presence,” makes it a felony for immigrants to drive a vehicle without carrying proof that they are lawfully present in the United States. The Louisiana State Legislature enacted the law shortly after 9/11 as a purported anti-terrorism measure. The law has not been used to prosecute terrorists, however, but rather to criminalize even lawful immigrants and to harass U.S. citizens who may look or sound foreign. 

“Judging people by how they look is un-American and against the law, and that is exactly what this misguided law requires,” said Marjorie R. Esman, ACLU Foundation of Louisiana executive director. “It imposes criminal penalties on those who can't provide documents on demand, without any other basis for suspicion. There is a good reason that similar laws in other states have been struck down. The people of Louisiana deserve better than this."

Laws like Louisiana’s were dealt a blow in 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Arizona v. United States that key components of a similar state law in Arizona were unconstitutional and preempted by federal immigration law. Louisiana’s law is particularly pernicious because violations of it are classified as felonies.

"Like challenges to Arizona's SB 1070, or Alabama's HB 56, the law before the Louisiana Supreme Court provides a perfect example of an unworkable – and unconstitutional – state attempt to meddle in strictly federal immigration territory," said Karen Tumlin, NILC managing attorney. "As the rest of the nation drives toward immigration reform, Louisiana should not be stuck in reverse." 

Louisiana’s law intrudes on the federal government’s power to regulate immigration by dictating the circumstances under which immigrants have to carry documents regarding lawful presence. The law also allows state and local law enforcement agencies and state courts to determine and adjudicate an individual’s immigration status. Individuals who are deemed by a state or local law enforcement officer to be unlawfully present are subject to arrest and risk a felony conviction.