HB56, the controversial immigration law that came into effect in Alabama in September, has driven a wedge between Latino residents who lack authorisation papers and the courts that are supposed to afford them equal treatment. In a survey of the impact of the legislation, Human Rights Watch found that discrimination was creeping into both criminal and civil law.
Under the legislation, known as the Beason-Hammon Act, section 27 says that “no court of this state shall enforce the terms of, or otherwise regard as valid, any contract between a party and an alien unlawfully present in the US”. That provision has already been invoked in at least one lawsuit by defendants accused of defrauding undocumented immigrants over the sale of cars – the defendants argued that they could not be sued because their victims were “illegal residents”.
In that case the judge found in favour of the plaintiffs, but only on the grounds that the fraud happened before HB56 was passed.
The watchdog recorded evidence of several cases of unauthorised immigrants who had wages withheld by employers and felt they were unable to take their grievance to court because of the new provision. One man, Alejandro, sought the advice of a lawyer but was told tha because of the new law he could not use the courts to retrieve the wages.
Human Rights Watch said this sent a clear message to employers that they did not need to fear legal redress from employees they had abused. That, the watchdog has pointed out, is a clear breach both of the US constitution and of international law.
In both the constitution and the international covenant on civil and political rights, all individuals must be treated equally before the law irrespective of their status. The 14th amendment of the US constitution says that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”.
Other aspects of HB56 have started to disturb the sacrosanct relationship between lawyer and client. Human Rights Watch said it had been told some lawyers were questioning whether they had a duty to inform on their clients should they lack proper papers.
The law prohibits “an officer of a court of this state” – a catch-all phrase that presumably includes lawyers as well as judges and court officers – from doing anything that would restrict the new legislation from being implemented. Human Rights Watch heard a case in which a criminal defence lawyer was confused about whether she was obliged to pass on the unauthorised status of her client. A judge advised that yes, she was obliged.
“Where does this law leave people if they can’t even trust their own lawyer?” said Grace Meng, the survey’s author.
Section 19 of the law denies bail to all undocumented immigrants charged with an offence, no matter how minor in nature. That in itself, the watchdog says, introduces unlawful discrimination into the legal process.
There are signs that the Latino community in Alabama – both documented and undocumented – has sharply reduced its reporting of crime for fear of being harassed by police under the new law even though they were the ones seeking assistance. The number of Latino people presenting themselves at court has plummeted, even to pay parking tickets, with individuals risking far greater punishments later on by allowing their fines to go unpaid.
Alabama’s all-out assault on undocumented Hispanic people has led to widespread criticism and ridicule, particularly after two foreign car executives working for Honda and Mercedes-Benz were apprehended under HB56. In recent days there have been moves to soften some of its provisions.
The courts this week stepped in to prevent undocumented immigrants losing their mobile homes, and the state attorney general Luther Strange has issued guidance saying that the law should not be used to withhold basic amenities from families such as water and electricity.
The Republican governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, who signed HB56 into law in June, has made assuaging noises to foreign car companies that have been inconvenienced by it.
But so far the impact of the law on the legal system itself has passed largely unnoticed. Human Rights Watch warns that it could have a “serious chilling effect on undocumented immigrants seeking justice in the courts … By enacting this law Alabama has already sent a message to unauthorised immigrants that their right to equal protection of the law will not be respected.”Comments (0)