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Police knock Alabama's new immigration law

Jefferson County, Alabama logo.

Kai Ryssdal: Best estimates are, there are about 120,000 illegal immigrants living in Alabama right now. Most of them went for jobs in construction and agriculture. Come September, though, it'll be a crime to rent them a place to live or to give them a ride somewhere, let alone hire them.

A lot of people are unhappy about the state's tough new immigration law, including groups that're supposed to enforce it. Gigi Douban reports from Birmingham.


Gigi Douban: It's a hot summer afternoon, and the Mimosa Trailer Park is awfully quiet. This is part of Deputy Randy Nash's beat. He's with the sheriff's department in Jefferson County, the state's most populous.

Randy Nash: This is Mimosa Trailer Park right here. This is 99.9 percent Hispanic right here.

And then a Mexican woman flags him down.

Nash: Hey sweetie. Hola, hola.

Woman: Hola, hola.

Now, before we get into why she flags him down, know that under the new law, Nash would have to ask this woman to prove she's here legally. And if she couldn't, he's supposed to haul her off to jail. But even when the law takes effect in September, Nash might not bother to ask about legal status.

Nash: I don't have time for none of it because it can get overwhelming. We're already stretched very thin.

Alabama Republican Senator Scott Beason sponsored the new immigration law, said to be the nation's toughest to date. Beason declined to be interviewed on tape, but told me the law is no different than any other passed by the state. And, he said, the police don't have the choice of not enforcing it.

Randy Christian: I would disagree with Senator Beason on that, and maybe he needs to come down here and see what we really do.

That's Chief Deputy Randy Christian, spokesman for the Jefferson County sheriff's office.

Christian: Really, the way it reads it's unprecedented in we've done in the past. And I think it gives the authority to just hold a person without bond in our jail just because we suspect that they may be here illegally.

Christian says the county jail is overcrowded as it is.

Christian: We've got a jail that is built for 900 people that averages 1,200 a day now, and I don't know where Senator Beason thinks we're going to put them and clothe them and feed them.

Jefferson County has been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy for the past three years. The sheriff's department recently slashed manpower by 20 percent. The deputies remaining stopped working car accidents -- state troopers do that now. So Christian, and police in other cities, see this law as an unfunded mandate.

Christian: Our focus will be on violent crime, and you know this right now is not on the forefront for us and is not our priority right now.

Back at Mimosa Trailer Park, Deputy Nash's priority is investigating why the Mexican woman flagged him down. She tells him she witnessed a break-in next door, and she's scared.

Nash promises to return and check up on her. And in all likelihood come September, he won't be asking for proof of citizenship.

In Birmingham, I'm Gigi Douban for Marketplace.

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