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SPLC victorious in challenge to Alabama’s immigrant ‘scarlet letter’ law

Alabama has agreed that it will not publish a list naming immigrants allegedly “unlawfully present” in the state. The settlement agreement blocks the final provision of the state’s harsh anti-immigrant law that the SPLC challenged in court.

It was a minor offense with potentially big consequences in Alabama.

In November 2012, four Latino immigrants were arrested for fishing without a license – a misdemeanor. But under a provision of the state’s anti-immigrant law, if immigrants appearing in state court could not prove their legal status, they would have their names placed on an online list available to anyone.

That raised concerns for immigrants in Alabama, who reported that the anti-immigrant law passed by the state a year earlier had already unleashed a kind of vigilantism among some Alabamians who believed they could harass, abuse and intimidate Latinos with impunity.

Under a settlement agreement the SPLC announced today, the state will not publish the list –blocking the final provision of Alabama’s anti-immigrant law challenged in court. That law, commonly known as HB 56, has been largely eviscerated by legal challenges from the SPLC and a coalition of other groups.

“This is yet another victory for Alabama’s immigrant community,” said Sam Brooke, SPLC staff attorney. “Blocking this final vestige of HB 56 is another nail in the coffin for Alabama’s misguided attempt to bully and intimidate immigrants.”

The agreement, which must be approved by a federal judge, requires the state to institute a policy that bars the publication of any list naming people allegedly “unlawfully present” in Alabama. It also requires that any immigration information collected by the state through the Administrative Office of the Courts be kept strictly confidential.

The SPLC and other civil rights groups filed the lawsuit in February 2013 on behalf of the four immigrants arrested for fishing without a license. The provision – commonly referred to as the “scarlet letter” law – required the posting of private information that the federal government has declared confidential and not subject to public disclosure.

It also provided no notice to people that their name and information would be posted online. A person’s name could be added to the list even if they were unlawfully arrested or their case was later dismissed.

The provision also failed to provide any means for people to remove their names or change their information if the listing was inaccurate or if their immigration status changed – even if they became citizens. This approach to immigration status is problematic because an individual’s immigration and citizenship status is fluid in nature and can change over time. The law did not accommodate this fluid nature in any way.

The settlement agreement is the latest victory in a long battle against the state’s anti-immigrant law. The defense of HB 56 has cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars just to pay the attorneys’ fees for the winning plaintiffs. The overall defense of this unconstitutional law will likely cost millions of taxpayer dollars.

The agreement reached today has been filed with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama Northern Division. Co-counsel include the National Immigration Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama Foundation.

But even with this victory, obstacles remain for immigrants in Alabama and elsewhere in the United States.

“Meaningful immigration reform is still critically needed,” Brooke said. “We call on Congress to fix our nation’s broken immigration system, rather than blocking reform under the empty promise that it will be addressed ‘next year.’”