Immigration and Civil Rights: Is the 'New' Birmingham the Same as the 'Old' Birmingham?

26 Pages Posted: 6 Jun 2012

See all articles by Kevin R. Johnson

Kevin R. Johnson

University of California, Davis - School of Law

Date Written: June 1, 2012


This paper was prepared for the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal’s 2012 immigration symposium on “Non-Citizen Participation in the National Polity.”

In the past few years, state legislatures have passed immigration enforcement laws at breakneck speed. The architect of many of the state immigration enforcement laws, Kris Kobach, has stated that their aim is to encourage undocumented immigrants to “self-deport” by making their everyday lives as difficult as possible.

In 2011, Alabama, a state considered by some to be the heart and soul of Dixie, entered the national immigration debate, which surprised many Americans given that the state is not ordinarily thought of as home to many immigrants. The Alabama legislature did not enact any ordinary law but passed what some, including its supporters, claimed was the toughest state immigration enforcement law of them all. The Beason-Hammon Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, or H.B. 56, built on Arizona’s controversial S.B. 1070 but goes much further in its efforts to encourage self-deportation, including by directly and indirectly limiting access of undocumented students to public education.

This article analyzes Alabama’s foray into immigration enforcement. It looks at H.B. 56 with the basic understanding that the enforcement of immigration laws implicate the civil rights of immigrants and U.S. citizens. Part I of this Article places the events leading to the passage of H.B. 56 into their proper historical context. Part II generally considers the possible civil rights consequences of the law on immigrants and Latino/as. Part III specifically focuses on Alabama’s efforts to limit access to education -- with, as in the days of Jim Crow, ensuring educational access central to the struggle of outsiders for fundamental civil rights and full membership in American society.

In analyzing Alabama’s H.B. 56, this Article identifies various social and legal parallels between the state immigration enforcement laws and the racial caste system of the Jim Crow South. It contends that race, class, and caste, with significant social and economic (labor market) aspects, are integral to both episodes in U.S. history. In both instances, supporters of the caste system invoked a claim of states’ rights, or their equivalents, in the defense of state-sanctioned discrimination. Both then and now, access to education is ground zero for the two civil rights movements.

Supporters of state intervention often claim that they merely want to promote obedience to the rule of the law, frequently combined with the exaggerated and unproven accusation that the federal government has “failed” to enforce the immigration laws. This Article looks deeply into, and beyond, this simplistic characterization to analyze how the current debates over immigration and immigration enforcement implicate the fundamental civil rights of residents of the United States and, specifically, the quest by Latina/os and immigrants for full membership in American society.

Suggested Citation

Johnson, Kevin R., Immigration and Civil Rights: Is the 'New' Birmingham the Same as the 'Old' Birmingham? (June 1, 2012). William & Mary Bill of Rights, 2012, UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 300, Available at SSRN:

Kevin R. Johnson (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis - School of Law ( email )

Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall
400 Mrak Hall Drive
Davis, CA 95616-5201
United States
530 752 0243 (Phone)
530 752 7279 (Fax)

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