Bloomberg News

Alabama Revenue Chief Halts Local Checks on Citizens’ Status

December 08, 2011

(Adds attorney general’s comment in last paragraph.)

Dec. 2 (Bloomberg) -- Alabama county offices should stop demanding proof of citizenship from drivers who want to renew car tags or people registering mobile homes, the state revenue commissioner has ordered.

“Under no circumstances is a state or county official or employee to make a determination as to whether an alien is lawfully present in the United States,” Revenue Commissioner Julie P. Magee said yesterday in a memo sent to local officials.

Until workers have access to a federal database, “you should not require anyone to demonstrate their U.S. citizenship or lawful presence,” she said. Absent that check, people should be allowed to conduct their business with state and local offices, she said.

Court rulings have blocked enforcement of some elements of a new state immigration law, including making it a criminal misdemeanor to be in the state illegally and unregistered. Other provisions that took effect in September have produced lines of unprecedented length for such services as renewing car tags, said Martha Ogle, the DeKalb County revenue commissioner.

“October was one of the worst months I’ve seen, and I’ve been here for a very long time,” Ogle said.

Portable Toilets

In Jefferson County, home of Birmingham, officials set up two portable outdoor toilets to accommodate those waiting hours in lines for vehicle registration plates.

Alabama’s immigration law has been called the toughest in the U.S. Signed by Governor Robert J. Bentley on June 9, the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act also requires school officials to check the status of enrolling children.

On Oct. 14, a U.S. appeals court blocked enforcement of certain provisions while the rulings of U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn in Birmingham are reviewed.

While Blackburn had temporarily prevented enforcement of measures prohibiting the hiring, housing or transporting people living in the U.S. unlawfully, she let police question the legal status of people stopped for suspicious behavior. She also let the authorities put anyone arrested for driving without a license before a magistrate for determination of their status.

Bentley and other state officials have said they want the Legislature to revisit the statute when lawmakers convene next year. He and other leaders have described needed changes as “tweaks” rather than wholesale revisions.

Immigrant Exodus

The law has driven illegal-immigrant laborers from the state, prompting complaints from farmers and food processors that produce fish and poultry.

Police arrested an executive of German automaker Daimler AG last month in Tuscaloosa County. A Honda Motor Co. employee was ticketed in Leeds for lacking proper papers. A Mercedes plant and a Honda factory are both major employers in the area. The cases against both individuals were dismissed.

In county offices, applicants for car tags and other services have been required to show proof of citizenship since the law took effect. Acceptable documentation was established by the state Revenue Department.

The demands for documentation sowed confusion and delays, angering Alabamians, Ogle said. DeKalb County had the state’s second-highest proportion of Hispanic residents last year, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

Frustrating Residents

In addition to the delays, Alabamians who couldn’t produce birth certificates or other acceptable documents were denied renewals of their registration plates, she said. That prompted some furious reactions, she said.

“A lot of people agreed with that law when they passed it,” Ogle said. “Little did people know that it doesn’t just apply to the Hispanics, it applies to everybody. Most people didn’t understand that.”

County officials followed a series of changing enforcement instructions, Ogle said.

Following a Nov. 23 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thompson, counties stopped demanding proof of citizenship from those seeking manufactured-home registration renewals.

Thompson temporarily halted the citizenship checks, responding to a challenge brought by the Central Alabama Fair Housing Coalition and the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery.

Magee’s directive to stop requiring citizenship documentation for services such as vehicle registrations followed an opinion issued yesterday by state Attorney General Luther Strange. He said county officials can check a person’s status only through a federal database, which isn’t currently available in most local offices.

Until local governments obtain access to that system, they can’t implement the state law banning illegal immigrants from doing business with the state, Strange said in the document. County officials “should not require anyone to demonstrate their U.S. citizenship or lawful presence in the U.S.,” he said.

--Editors: Ted Bunker, Stephen Merelman.

To contact the reporter on this story: Margaret Newkirk in Atlanta at mnewkirk@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at mtannen@bloomberg.net


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