Testimony to Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights

The Southern Poverty Law Center is part of a coalition of civil rights groups challenging misguided state laws in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Frustration with Congress’ failure to reform the nation’s immigration policy is not sufficient reason for states to create a patchwork of policies that throw lives into disarray and sow fear, bigotry and confusion in communities.

Racial Profiling in America

Thank you for the opportunity to comment about racial profiling and about how draconian anti-immigrant laws, such as Alabama’s HB 56 and Arizona’s SB1070, have exacerbated the problem of racial profiling.  These anti-immigrant laws have particularly devastated Latino Americans and immigrants across those states. 

My name is Mary Bauer. I am the legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center ("SPLC"). 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. Our Immigrant Justice Project represents low-income immigrant workers in litigation across the Southeast.

In 2010, Arizona lawmakers passed the first of soon-to-be-many anti-immigrant laws, SB 1070. Shortly thereafter, the law’s constitutionality was challenged, and next week, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide its fate. 

In the absence of a federal solution, other states followed the path of Arizona. Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Utah and South Carolina passed their own immigration laws. These misguided state laws are designed to punish undocumented immigrants and those who provide any sort of aid to them. However, citizens and immigrants, regardless of status, are frequently caught in crosshairs of these laws.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is part of a coalition of civil rights groups challenging these laws in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.  Frustration with Congress’ failure to reform the nation’s immigration policy is not sufficient reason for states to create a patchwork of policies that throw lives into disarray and sow fear, bigotry and confusion in communities.

Alabama’s HB 56 is the most extreme of these law.  HB56 law runs counter to our fundamental principles of fairness and returns Alabama to its bleakest past of racial hatred and division.

Every day we see first-hand the chaos and devastation this clearly unconstitutional law has created across Alabama.  Although several provisions of the law have been enjoined, the provisions that have taken effect have wreaked havoc across the state.

As promised by the law’s main proponents, they’ve made life hell for immigrants – and, really, all Latinos – across the state. Images from the 1960s, such as Bull Connor’s unleashing of vicious dogs and powerful water hoses on African Americans in the streets of Birmingham, should be a stark enough reminder of the destruction caused when laws are guided by racist intent. Unfortunately, while Jim Crow may be long gone, “Juan” Crow is alive and well.

In Alabama, it is simply open season on Latinos. A federal judge has even noted that the law appeared to have been adopted with racially discriminatory intent.  A sponsor of HB56 has equated all Latinos in Alabama with the undocumented.  This lawmaker used figures showing the increase in Alabama’s entire Latino population to illustrate the growth of the state’s undocumented population. Meanwhile, a co-sponsor of the law told colleagues they needed to “empty the clip” to deal with immigrants.

After HB56 went into effect, SPLC and the other groups representing plaintiffs in HICA v. Bentley, the lawsuit challenging HB56, 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 over 5,600 calls through the hotline, and we’ve received many other complaints through other means. The breadth of the problems—created directly and indirectly by the law—is breathtaking.

These calls and the desperation in the callers’ voices demonstrate that racial profiling takes many forms.  It is perpetrated by law enforcement, school officials, government officials, and ordinary people emboldened by the anti-immigrant messages the law sends.


  • 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 have kept their children out of school.
  • 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 from school weeping 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 an 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.”
  • 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 legal obligations to preserve a client’s confidences.
  • 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 would 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 cannot 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.
  • Legal immigrants, including those with temporary protected status, have been told that they cannot obtain drivers’ licenses in the state.
  • 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 reporting the mother to the federal government for deportation. The family went into hiding.
  • 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.


  • An apartment complex manager in Hoover told residents they would not be able to renew their leases without proof of immigration status.
  • A worker called to say that his employer refused to pay him, citing HB56, and stated that the worker had no rights under this law to be paid.
  • Latino workers on a construction job site 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 at the site 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 Bessemer 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 private utility company 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 mother took her teenage daughter with a high fever to a clinic. The clinic refused to treat the girl, claiming it could no longer treat undocumented immigrants under HB56. A few days later the teen had to be rushed to a hospital emergency room and needed emergency surgery for an abdominal abcess – which likely could have been prevented had the girl been treated days earlier.

In short, Alabama is struggling with a humanitarian crisis. And HB56 is to blame. Alabama has worked hard to overcome its sordid past of racial hatred. Unfortunately, with one stroke of his pen, Gov. Robert Bentley has set our state back decades by signing a law that does nothing more than target people for the way they look.

Although the suffering will not stop and the stain on Alabama won’t be removed until that law is repealed, the federal government holds the power to reform immigration – with a comprehensive approach. It can provide relief to those who are suffering rather than perpetuating the problems created by laws like HB56.

The SPLC has been heartened by the response of the federal government to HB56, particularly that of the Department of Justice, which has challenged the law in federal court. However, another federal agency, the Department of Homeland Security, has played a deeply troubling role in enabling HB56 to funnel Alabama’s immigrants into deportation proceedings.

Though Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has stated that her agency will not help Alabama implement HB56, we have yet to hear specifics about what that means. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has conducted raids and other enforcement actions in Alabama that have terrorized immigrant communities and threatened to trample their civil rights. ICE also continues to detain and deport people as a result of HB56 – even though the Department of Justice has decried the law as unconstitutional.

The result is a contradictory message from the federal government that has pledged to protect the civil rights of the immigrant community but at the same time engages in activities that threaten to violate those same rights. These enforcement actions by ICE must cease.

We cannot allow, in this country, a certain class of people to be assaulted, cheated, abused, harassed and racially profiled with impunity. Every person, regardless of race, ethnicity or even immigration status, must be afforded basic human rights and due process.

We hope this discussion leads to a rational, fact-based debate, free of the fear-mongering myths about Latino immigrants peddled by racist individuals and organizations. The defining hallmarks of the debate over immigration so far have been misinformation and bigotry. We can come together as a country to resolve these problems only if we’re honest about the root cause of anti-immigration sentiment and the consequences of the actions we take to address it.

Thank you.