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Testimony Before Congressional Ad Hoc HB56 Hearing

SPLC legal director Mary Bauer testified before the Congressional Ad Hoc Hearing on HB56 in Birmingham today.

Testimony given in Birmingham, Ala. in the Birmingham City Council Chambers.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak about the devastating effects that Alabama’s extreme anti-immigrant law, known as HB56, has had on this state.

My name is Mary Bauer. I am the Legal Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Founded in 1971, the Southern Poverty Law Center is a civil rights organization dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights of minorities, the poor, and victims of injustice in significant civil rights and social justice matters. The Southern Poverty Law Center is one of several civil rights groups representing plaintiffs in HICA v. Bentley, a lawsuit challenging HB56 in federal court. That case is currently pending before Judge Sharon Blackburn in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, and the ruling on Plaintiff’s motion for preliminary injunction is on appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

During my legal career, I have represented thousands of immigrants throughout the Southeast and elsewhere. I have been lead counsel in at least a dozen major class action lawsuits on behalf of immigrants. I am also the author of several reports about immigrants in the U.S, including Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States, published in 2007; Under Siege: Life for Low-Income Latinos in the South, published in 2009; and Injustice on Our Plates: Immigrant Women in the U.S. Food Industry, published 2010 (co-authored with Mónica Ramírez)

The Origins of HB56

HB56 was drafted, at least in part, by Kris Kobach, who is with the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI). IRLI is the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a group listed as a nativist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. This law, then, is clearly part of a national nativist agenda, but its effects are being perpetrated upon the state of Alabama.

The law was sponsored in Alabama by Senator Scott Beason, who urged his fellow legislators to “empty the clip and do what needs to be done” in discussing the need for this law to combat illegal immigration. Sam Rolley, “Beason: The Dems Don’t Want to Solve Illegal Immigration Problem” The Cullman Times, February 6, 2011. Alabama Representative Micky Hammon, the House co-sponsor of the bill, has said that, in drafting the bill, they intended it to “attack every aspect of an illegal immigrant’s life.” Kim Chandler, “Alabama House Passes Arizona-Style Immigration Law,” The Birmingham News, April 5, 2011.

The law as passed had 30 provisions; seven of those provisions have been enjoined by either the District Court or the Court of Appeals. The provisions that have been enjoined include Section 13, which made it a crime to transport or provide shelter to undocumented immigrant, thereby criminalizing many charitable and religious operations; Section 8, which prohibited many legal immigrants from attending any public college or university in the state; and Section 28, which required school officials to inquire as to the legal status of public school children and their parents. Section 28 went into effect for approximately two weeks before it was enjoined by the Court of Appeals. Although we’re certainly pleased that the provision has been enjoined, great damage has already been done: Latino children have heard the message, loud and clear, that they are not wanted in this state.

In fact, HB56 has devastated the immigrant community in Alabama. It would be hard for me to overstate the human tragedy that has been unleashed upon Alabama by HB56. Under the provisions of this law that are currently in effect, undocumented persons are unable to interact with the government—in any way and for any purpose.

It has turned a significant class of people, effectively, into legal non-persons, subjecting them to a kind of legal exile. It has destroyed lives, ripped apart families, devastated communities, and left our economy in shatters.

The Real World Effects of this Law

After HB56 went into effect, SPLC and the other groups representing plaintiffs in HICA v. Bentley started a telephone hotline to field calls about the law. In the first weekend, we received close to 1,000 calls. We have now received close to 4,000 calls through the hotline, and we’ve received many other complaints through other means, including through know your rights presentations we have conducted around the state. The breadth of the problems—created directly and indirectly by the law,—is breathtaking. A small sample of the kinds of concerns people have raised follows:

  • A mother in northern Alabama was told she could not attend a book fair at her daughter’s school without an Alabama state ID or driver’s license.
  • A father called to report that his U.S. citizen daughter came home weeping from school after other students told her she did not belong there and needed to go back to Mexico—a country she had never visited.
  • A judge advised a lawyer that the lawyer had obligation to report her own client to ICE as undocumented. The same judge stated that he might have to report to ICE any person who asked for an interpreter, as such a request would be a red flag.
  • Latino workers on a construction jobsite were threatened by a group of men with guns, who told them to go back to Mexico and threatened to kill them if they were there the following day. They declined to report the crime to law enforcement because of fears of what would happen to them if they did.
  • A clerk at a store in Bessemar told a Latino man (lawfully in the United States) from Ohio that he could not make a purchase with his bank card because he did not have an Alabama state issued identification or driver’s license.
  • A victim of domestic violence went to court to obtain a protective order. The clerk told her that she’d be reported to ICE if she proceeded.
  • A local bar association has advised its lawyers that if they are asked to report information about their undocumented clients to law enforcement, the requirements of HB56 will override the legal obligation to preserve a client’s confidences.
  • By the first Monday after HB56 was allowed to take effect, 2,285 Latino students were absent from schools across Alabama; 7 percent of the total Latino school population. Since then, the Attorney General and the state have refused to share enrollment and absentee data to anyone, including the United States Department of Justice.
  • A public school in Montgomery asked already enrolled Latino students questions about their immigration status and that of their parents. As a result, some parents are keeping their children out of school.
  • In Allgood, the water authority posted a sign indicating that water customers would have to produce identification documents proving immigration status in order to maintain water service.
  • In Northport, the water authority provided notices to Latino customers that their services will be shut off if they didn’t provide proof of immigration status immediately.
  • In Madison County and in Decatur, the public utilities have announced that they will not provide water, gas, or sewage service to people who could not prove their status.
  • Numerous probate offices, including the Montgomery Probate Office and the Houston County Probate Office, have published notices indicating that they will not provide any services to anyone without proof of immigration status. As a result, many immigrants cannot request birth or death certificates.
  • An apartment complex manager in Hoover told residents they would not be able to renew their leases without proof of immigration status.
  • Legal immigrants, including those with temporary protected status, have been told that they cannot obtain drivers’ licenses in the state.
  • A worker called to say that his employer refused to pay him, citing HB56, and stated that the worker had no rights to be paid under this law.
  • A mother spoke to the local office of the Department of Human Resources about her U.S. citizen children’s eligibility for food stamps. The social worker told the mother that she would be turning the mother into the federal government for deportation. The family went into hiding.
  • Alabama Power told a family that they would not be able to have their electricity reconnected without providing proof of immigration status. That family left the state.
  • A husband called us to report that his wife, nine months pregnant, was too afraid to go to a hospital in Alabama to give birth, and that he was trying to decide whether to have her give birth at home or somehow to try to get to Florida.
  • A Latino man was arrested and detained. While in jail, he was told that he could not use the telephone to call his attorney because the use of the phone would be a “business transaction” prohibited by HB56.

Need for Government Action

HB 56 has created a humanitarian disaster in this state. We have been heartened by the interest in our state by the Members of Congress who have traveled to Alabama for this hearing, by the United States Department of Justice, and by other federal agencies. But much more needs to be done. Most importantly, we need action by the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. We were pleased to read that Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano has stated that DHS will not help Alabama implement this law, but we have yet to hear specifics about what that will mean in the real world. In the meantime, it appears to us on the ground that it is “business as usual” for ICE in Alabama. We have received calls from dozens of individuals whose family members have been arrested as a result of this law. People who are arrested pursuant to this law are being detained and put into removal proceedings. That needs to stop.

The Rights Working Group, of which we are a member, sent a letter to Secretary Napolitano earlier this month asking that DHS take concrete steps to ensure that it does not, wittingly or not, assist Alabama in implementing this law. SPLC followed up on that letter with its own request, and we also sought a meeting with the Secretary to discuss the crisis in Alabama. I have attached copies of both letters to this testimony. We are still hopeful that that meeting will happen, but we have yet to receive a response to our request. The people of Alabama need assurance that the federal government will not further acquiesce in or enable this terrible law.


Alabama is suffering a humanitarian crisis, a crisis that hearkens this state back to the bleakest days of our racial history.

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify. I welcome your questions.