U.S. Supreme Court Considers ALEC Immigration Bill

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments challenging Arizona's SB 1070 immigration law. In 2009, this bill was pre-approved by legislators along with corporate lobbyists and special interest representatives at an American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) task force before passing the Arizona legislature and being signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer, an ALEC alum. The National Rifle Association (NRA) was the private sector co-chair of ALEC's "Public Safety and Elections Task Force" when the bill was approved.

The hearings will revolve around the relationship between the federal and state governments in regulating and enforcing immigration. Arizona passed the ALEC "No Sanctuary Cities for Illegal Immigrants Act" in early 2010 as Senate Bill 1070, but days before it was to take effect in July 2010, federal Judge Susan Bolton blocked its most controversial provisions. In April of 2011 the Ninth Circuit rejected Arizona's appeal and upheld the lower court's decision, agreeing that the state had overstepped its authority. The case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

However, months before the Arizona legislature considered the controversial immigration bill, for-profit prison and bail industry lobbyists gathered behind closed doors with state legislators at an ALEC meeting where the "No Sanctuary Cities for Illegal Immigrants Act" was approved as a "model bill" to be introduced in statehouses across the country.

Arizona Representative Russell Pearce had long supported tough state-level immigration enforcement, but failed to get some of its ideas into law '05, '06, '07, '08, and '09, in part because then-governor Janet Napolitano vetoed a few of his previous efforts.

Pearce found success in 2010, after he brought the draft bill to ALEC for approval and endorsement by ALEC member corporations, and with a new governor who had previously been a member of ALEC. Xenophobia alone had not been sufficient to codify anti-immigrant sentiment into law. After receiving the impramatur of the corporate-funded ALEC, the expanded bill moved in Arizona and other states.

Dollars for Detention

DBA Press / In These Times documented how Arizona Republican Rep. Pearce collaborated with members of ALEC's Public Safety and Elections Task Force in December 2009 to advance the ALEC "model" immigration bill that became SB1070.

The private sector membership of that task force included for-profit prison operator Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Its government affairs representative, Laurie Shanblum, was designated as a leader of that task force through a seat on its "executive committee." (CCA has claimed that it never voted on bills, even though it was a long-time active member of that task force, and its representative previously served as its co-chair. No bill can be approved by a task force without a vote in support by private sector members.)

Before the ALEC meeting, CCA had identified immigrant detention as a profit center important for its future growth, stating it anticipated receiving "a significant portion of our revenues" from detaining immigrants. Even a hedge fund with a big stake in CCA was touting immigration detention as proof CCA would be profitable. As CMD has documented, ALEC corporations hold the trump card in task force meetings -- without the support of unelected private sector representatives in an ALEC task force, a proposed piece of legislation does not become an ALEC "model bill."

ALEC not only develops corporate-sponsored model legislation, but also acts as a "corporate match-making service," according to Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan. It effectively opens new channels for corporate influence and contributions by creating and aiding relationships between corporations and legislators. After the Arizona bill was introduced, 30 of the bill's 36 co-sponsors promptly received campaign contributions from donors in the for-profit prison industry.

An immigrant contesting his or her deportation can wait up to a year for a hearing, even though many of those detained have no criminal record. Immigrant detention can cost taxpayers $122 a day or more. Because for-profit corporations operate about half of all immigrant detention facilities, through policies that expand and extend detention significant taxpayer dollars flow into the pockets of CCA and other for-profit prison providers.

The for-profit bail bond industry's trade association, the American Bail Coalition (ABC), is a long-time ALEC member with a seat on the ALEC task force that approved the model immigration bill that became SB1070. An immigrant facing removal in some cases may be released on bond, and will often pay a commercial bail bondsman for their release. Immigration bonds are usually between $5,000 and $10,000, and can be much higher, so a for-profit bail bondsman who often takes 10 percent of that bail as a nonrefundable fee can rake in significant profits for doing very little.

The chairman of ALEC's Private Enterprise Board at the time was ABC general counsel Jerry Watson. Watson was very familiar with the profits that can be made by collecting bail bonds from detained immigrants. His law firm biography lists him as "specializing in the field of ... immigration bonding."

Supreme Court Considering ALEC Bill

The ALEC "No Sanctuary Cities for Illegal Immigrants Act," which became Arizona's SB1070, requires that, among other issues, state law enforcement officers enforce complex federal immigration law, which has been described as more complicated than any field but tax law. Opponents of SB 1070 and other state immigration enforcement laws believe they heartlessly separate families, negatively impact local economies and communities, and promote discrimination against people who "look" like immigrants (particularly Latinos).

Defending the law for Arizona is Paul Clements, who just weeks ago was asking the court to strike-down President Obama's health care reform law. Clements and Arizona argue that SB1070 "mirrors" the federal law and is consistent with the intent of congress.

Immigration regulation has traditionally been reserved for the federal government. The Obama administration is arguing that federal laws preempt state laws on the issue, in part because the Constitution commits the creation of uniform immigration rules to Congress and the federal government. A state requiring local law enforcement to initiate investigations of all suspected illegal immigrants will disrupt the U.S. government's effort to focus its limited resources on priority cases, like immigrants convicted of crimes. (Laws like SB 1070 also disrupt the ability of local police to prioritize investigating violent crimes over pursuing workers without documentation.) The U.S. also argues that unnecessarily detaining immigrants with permission to be in the country could have significant foreign policy consequences.

Justice Elena Kagan will recuse herself because she was U.S. Solicitor General when the federal government originally brought the lawsuit against Arizona. This creates the possibility the court will split 4-4, in which case the Ninth Circuit decision against Arizona will stand -- however, that ruling would only apply to states within the Ninth Circuit, which would not include Alabama (which passed an immigration law that echoed SB1070, but was even more harsh).

Backlash Against ALEC's Extreme Agenda

While the outcome of the Supreme Court case is uncertain, ALEC's extreme policies are losing in the realm of public opinion.

In 2011, voters recalled SB1070 sponsor ALEC member and state Senator Russell Pearce, based in part on his advocacy for harsh immigration legislation more responsive to the desires of out-of-state special interests rather than the needs of his constituents. But Pearce remains undeterred -- he defended the law in congressional hearings this week, and has insisted that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney supports SB 1070 as a model for the rest of the country.

In recent weeks, amidst growing public awareness of ALEC's role in promoting model bills to make it more difficult for American citizens to vote and to advance the NRA's agenda with "Stand Your Ground/Kill at Will" provisions at issue in Florida, ALEC's corporate and legislative members have been dropping their membership in the organization. Last week, ALEC announced it was disbanding the Public Safety and Elections Task Force that approved these model bills and SB1070, along with other controversial "model" bill templates.

However, this appears to be little more than a PR stunt. As Color of Change highlighted recently, the most recent chair of the Public Safety and Elections Task Force, Rep. Jerry Madden of Texas, has said that many of the issues dealt with by his task force will simply be transferred elsewhere in the organization. Meanwhile, the "No Sanctuary Cities for Illegal Immigrants Act" remains on the books as an ALEC model bill for other legislators to introduce.