MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Alabama has agreed to pay $230,000 in legal bills incurred by civil rights groups that sued the state over a provision of its anti-immigrant law that threatened to push people out of their homes. The agreement announced yesterday means that the state has now agreed to pay $580,000 to cover plaintiffs' legal fees and costs in two successful challenges to Alabama's anti-immigrant law known as HB 56.
"This lawsuit put a swift end to a cruel, discriminatory, and unlawful effort to drive immigrant families out of their homes," said Justin B. Cox, American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project staff attorney. "Monday's news underlines that this fundamentally flawed legislation was not only unconstitutional, but also quite costly."
Alabama agreed last year to pay $350,000 in attorneys' fees as part of the final settlement of HICA v. Bentley, a separate lawsuit brought by a broader civil rights coalition that permanently blocked many provisions of HB 56. Monday's agreement in Central Alabama Fair Housing Center v. Magee brings to $580,000 the total amount Alabama will pay in legal fees to civil rights groups it fought in court.
"This agreement is another reminder of the high cost of Alabama's anti-immigrant law to taxpayers," said Samuel Brooke, senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. "But this law cost immigrant families much more in terms of the fear and discrimination they endured."
The $580,000 figure does not include the salaries and expenses Alabama paid for its own defense of the discriminatory and unconstitutional law.
"Monday's settlement closes another ugly chapter in Alabama's legal history," said Alvaro Huerta, National Immigration Law Center staff attorney. "This settlement, along with last year's settlement, shows that the state is beginning to recognize that anti-immigrant laws like HB 56 are just too costly, both fiscally and morally. We hope their elected officials in Washington take note and abandon efforts to revive racist policies like these and instead work toward fixing our broken immigration system."
This agreement stems from a 2011 lawsuit challenging a provision of HB 56 that barred "business transactions" between the state and anyone who cannot prove their citizenship or lawful status. Before this suit blocked the provision, individuals attempting to renew their mobile home registration tags but unable to prove their status could have been charged with a felony because they would have been considered an undocumented immigrant attempting to engage in a "business transaction" with Alabama.
This practice threatened immigrant families - regardless of their immigration status - with eviction. Mobile home parks often require homeowners to display a current decal or face eviction from the park. A federal judge temporarily blocked the provision in 2011. The legislature rewrote it in 2012 to not apply to the mobile home tags, essentially resolving the substance of the lawsuit.
"The court recognized that the state of Alabama acted with an intent to discriminate against Hispanics," said Foster Maer, LatinoJustice PRLDEF senior litigation counsel. "We welcome this settlement as the best means to undo the harms inflicted on Hispanics. We must be vigilant that race does not ever again enter into Alabama's political decision making."
The lawsuit over the mobile home tags provision exposed the discriminatory nature of HB 56. When a federal judge issued the temporary injunction against the provision in 2011, his ruling described the legislative debate over HB 56 as "laced with derogatory comments about Hispanics." U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson's ruling also said that it's likely the entire law was "discriminatorily based." The judge cited examples of lawmakers delving into ethnic stereotypes and using "Hispanic" and "illegal immigrant" interchangeably.
"Judge Thompson's ruling made clear that defendants cannot cloak unlawful racial or national origin discrimination behind facially neutral conduct that denies or restricts housing opportunities on the basis of immigration status," said Stephen Dane, an attorney with Relman, Dane & Colfax PLLC
The lawsuit challenging the provision was filed in 2011 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama in Montgomery. It was brought by a coalition that included the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Immigration Law Center, Latino Justice / PRLDEF and Relman, Dane & Colfax, PLLC.
Photo: Protestors against Alabama's immigration law march through Linn Park, June 25, 2011, in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/ The Birmingham News, Mark Almond)