WASHINGTON (CNS) — The Supreme Court April 29 let stand a lower-court ruling that tossed out restrictive provisions of an Alabama immigration law. Later in the week, three jurisdictions acted to make it easier for people without legal immigration status to get driver’s licenses.

Without comment, the court rejected Alabama’s appeal of an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that blocked key provisions of a broad immigration law that took effect in 2011. Justice Antonin Scalia noted that he disagreed with the decision not to take the case, but he did not explain further.

Two days later, the governors of Maryland and Oregon signed laws creating a driver’s license for people who lack legal immigration status but who pass the tests and meet other criteria for state residency. And Washington Mayor Vince Gray proposed an ordinance to create a similar type of license in the District of Columbia.


Catholic and Protestant bishops in Alabama had sued to block parts of that state’s immigration law, out of concern for how certain provisions might affect churches’ ability to minister to people in need, said Bishop Robert J. Baker of Birmingham in a phone interview May 3 with Catholic News Service. Though their lawsuit was dismissed, Bishop Baker said the bishops feel vindicated that the block on the bill stands.

The lower court struck down provisions that would have criminalized the act of seeking work if an individual lacks a work permit and that made it illegal for immigrants to fail to carry immigration documents. It also blocked provisions that would have barred courts from enforcing contracts entered into by undocumented immigrants and required schools to determine students’ immigration status.

Bishop Baker said the provisions to which the churches objected were the one on contracts and others that would have outlawed the act of transporting people who are in the country illegally or “harboring” them.

He said that when nearly 60 tornadoes hit Alabama in April 2011, the churches aided people in many ways without regard to their immigration status. But under the new law, said Bishop Baker, it wasn’t clear whether it would have been illegal to provide housing or give rides to displaced tornado victims, for example.

Bishop Baker, Episcopal Bishop Henry N. Parsley and United Methodist Bishop William H. Willimon sued in August to stop the law. Although their lawsuit was dismissed over whether they had the standing to sue because the law hadn’t been applied to them, Bishop Baker said they feel vindicated by the Supreme Court’s action.

Last summer, the Supreme Court tossed out key portions of Arizona’s immigration law, but left intact a so-called “show me your papers” provision for law enforcement officers to ask for immigration documents of anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally. Alabama’s law also has such a provision, which the 11th Circuit left in place.

On May 1, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber signed laws creating a special category of driver’s license for immigrants who lack legal status.

Kitzhaber signed Oregon’s law at an immigration reform rally in Salem.

“This bill is a part of a larger vision where all Oregonians deserve and get their shot at the American dream,” he said.

The Associated Press reported one sign among the many in the crowd read: “Thank you. Now I can drive my kids to school.”

Both states’ laws will take effect in January. Maryland used to issue licenses to people without legal immigration status, but the practice was stopped in 2009 to comply with a federal requirement for identification that is accepted for federal purposes such as airline travel.

Both Oregon’s and Maryland’s new laws allow for licenses that serve for driving and limited other purposes, such as identification for opening a bank account. They both will have other differences from licenses issued to U.S. citizens and legal immigrants. Oregon’s for instance, will be good for four years, half as long as a standard license.

In Washington, Gray’s bill also would create a two-tiered system, allowing immigrants without legal status to get licenses that would not meet ID requirements to board airplanes or enter federal buildings that require ID check.

Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA de Maryland, a social services agency, said in a statement that the law proves that “despite a broken immigration system, reasonable minds can build safe communities that are knit together by our common interests.”