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Is Alabama's new illegal immigration law really the toughest?

States now appear to be vying for the title of toughest law against illegal immigration. Alabama's is probably the broadest, but not the toughest in every particular.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley speaks before signing into law what critics and supporters are calling the strongest bill in the nation cracking down on illegal immigration on June 9 at the state Capitol in Montgomery, Ala.

Mickey Welsh/Montgomery Advertiser/AP

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Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) signed an immigration bill Thursday, which among other things bars illegal immigrants from public colleges and universities, requires businesses to check the legal status of their employees, and punishes landlords who knowingly rent to illegal immigrants.

Both sides of the debate say it’s the toughest illegal immigration law in the country. But in an age when both tough-on-immigration lawmakers and the immigrant-rights activists who oppose them routinely claim a law is “the toughest” in the land, how does Alabama’s HB 56 stack up?

“There’s a certain competitiveness in states to sound the most strict,” says Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute office at the New York University School of Law. “It’s hard to say at the end of the day which is.”

Depending on the issue, other states have immigration laws tougher than Alabama’s, says Mr. Chishti, such as Mississippi's 2008 law that makes working in the state illegally a felony.

But Alabama’s 72-page law covers more ground than even Arizona’s SB 1070, the sweeping immigration law passed last year. That breadth makes it “one of most strict in the country,” says Chishti. It borrows ideas from a Fremont, Neb., law which penalizes landlords who knowingly rent to illegal immigrants, and from a South Carolina law barring illegal immigrants from attending public universities.

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