By Kathy Mulady, Equal Voice Newspaper

A coalition of civil-rights, human-rights and faith groups filed a class action lawsuit Friday challenging Alabama's recently enacted immigration law, House Bill 56.

Tough anti-immigrant laws have been recently passed in a half-dozen states -- Arizona, Indiana, Georgia, Utah, South Carolina and Alabama -- mainly out of frustration with the federal government's failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform.

The harsh Alabama law is even more restrictive than Arizona's SB 1070, which was the first in the series of anti-immigration laws passed this year in the Republican-controlled states.

The lawsuit -- filed in the U.S. District Court for the northern district of Alabama -- was announced at the Civil Rights Memorial Center in downtown Montgomery by the Southern Poverty Law Center and many of the two-dozen plaintiffs who are joining the legal challenge.

"This is the most extreme anti-immigrant law passed in the nation," said Mary Bauer, legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama. "Laws like this are leading us in exactly the wrong direction, backward in time instead of forward."

So far, none of the immigration laws have been fully implemented in any states because of legal challenges.

The Alabama law, which would go into effect Sept. 1, essentially turns educators, business owners, landlords and citizens into immigration officers, and punishes anyone caught hiring, housing or even giving a car ride to an undocumented person in the state. Most disturbing to some is that the legislation targets children.

"If implemented, HB 56 will cause irreparable harm to Alabama's reputation, to the vitality of our economy and to the well-being of hardworking immigrant families that HICA works daily to engage and empower," said Isabel Rubio, executive director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (HICA).

HICA is a lead plaintiff in the legal action that also includes Interpreters and Translators Association of Alabama, United Food and Commercial Workers and Greater Birmingham Ministries.

"We refuse to stand by and do nothing as this immoral law undermines communities, punishes children, perpetuates hate and bigotry and, above all, goes against everything people of faith stand for," said Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries. "It is essential that we hold firm to our beliefs and our core values of life and liberty for all."

Douglas said many are afraid they will be breaking the law if they offer undocumented immigrants food, housing, medical care or even a ride to church. He said members of his organization are afraid of being prosecuted, and volunteers fear criminal ramifications.

Alabama's HB 56, sponsored by Rep. Micky Hammon, requires immigrants to carry documents proving their legal status at all times, and requires employers to use a federal verification system -- known as E-Verify -- to confirm the legal status of their workers.

"It's no surprise that liberal groups working to shield those who live here illegally are trying to block implementation of our state immigration statute," Hammon said in a statement released by his office on Friday.

Hammon said the legislation was carefully crafted with consideration for existing law, legal precedents and statutes and provisions already allowed in other states, and will pass any constitutional challenge. Hammon called the Alabama law a model for the rest of the nation to follow.

"It is important to note that our law seeks to protect immigrants who reside here legally, while affecting only those who break our laws with their simple presence," he said.

HB 56 was sold to legislators as a jobs-creation action; its supporters argue that in a time of high unemployment, undocumented workers are taking jobs that would otherwise go to Alabama citizens.

However, just the opposite is proving true as Hispanics, documented and undocumented, flee the states and workforce, leaving gaping holes in the agriculture and construction industries.

In Georgia, farmers are already facing worker shortages as they prepare to harvest delicate summer fruits and vegetables that have to be picked by hand. Alabama construction contractors are wondering where they will find skilled laborers as they start rebuilding large swathes of the state destroyed in the spring tornadoes.

The Alabama lawsuit claims HB 56 is unconstitutional and interferes with federal authority over immigration matters.

In addition, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the law subjects citizens and residents to search and seizure, discourages immigrant families from enrolling their children in public schools, and bans even some students in the state legally, such as refugees, from attending public colleges and universities in Alabama.

"We don't think that this law is even close to the line. We are confident the courts will find it unconstitutional," said attorney Bauer at the law center.

The Alabama law contains provisions that have been enjoined by courts in other states, but also extreme provisions that haven't been enacted in other states, including banning undocumented immigrant students, including refugees and others who are in the country legally, from state universities and colleges.

Matt Webster, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and his wife are adopting two boys from Mexico. The children are undocumented and won't have citizenship status for two years after the adoption process is completed.

In the meantime, Webster says the Alabama law will make it illegal for the Websters to transport or provide for the children.

"I will be considered a criminal for harboring, encouraging and transporting my own sons," he said. "I am furious that our state representatives have wasted and will continue to waste taxpayer money with this law. I am a Republican and probably agree with many of our Republican legislators on most issues. On this one, however, I do not."

Another plaintiff, Pamela Long, is a university professor and a minister at an Episcopal church in Montgomery. She serves as an interpreter in court proceedings, drives Latino community members to church and doctor appointments and ministers to them spiritually.

She doesn't ask them about their immigration status, although sometimes they tell her. Now Long is afraid she will face criminal prosecution for assisting people, but says she plans to continue, despite the risk.