"We're getting calls from physicians, and many of them are irritated," said Larry Dixon, director of the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners. "We try to remind them that this is nothing we want to do."
Dixon's agency, the state board that grants and renews licenses to practice medicine in the state, sent out a letter May 16 to the approximately 16,000 doctors who hold medical licenses in Alabama. The letter told them they had until the end of May to submit proof of legal residency.
The letter is the latest step in the implementation of Alabama's 2011 immigration law, widely considered to be the toughest in the country. Also known as the Beason-Hammon Act, the law requires people to prove that they're in the country legally in order to conduct transactions with the state. That includes getting licenses for a wide range of professions regulated by the state, from electrical contracting to nursing.
The law has been in effect since 2011, but a Catch-22 may have prohibited some legal immigrants from getting professional licenses until this year. U.S. citizens can prove their legal residence by providing an Alabama drivers license. Non-citizens must have their legal residence verified through the federal database known as Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE.
Most state licensing boards weren't authorized to use SAVE when the law was passed in 2011. In October 2012, state officials told The Star that no state board was yet authorized to use SAVE, though most if not all had applied for that authorization.
Dixon, of the medical licensing board, said his agency got the approval to use the federal system in March. He said the board didn't want to ask doctors for proof of legal residency before the system was ready to use. He said the long wait was an "unintended consequence" of a state law requiring state agencies to work with federal institutions.
"The federal government doesn't work on our schedule," he said.
Attempts to reach the immigration law's sponsor, Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, were unsuccessful Wednesday. In October, Beason told The Star the original plan was to create a state system for verifying legal residency of non-citizens. Lawmakers, he said, opted for SAVE to avoid duplication of services.
Doctors have until October to have their licenses renewed, Dixon said, but the board needs the paperwork well in advance of that deadline.
"We deal with physicians every day," he said, noting that doctors are typically very busy. "We know we have to set deadlines if we want to get it done."
Since the letter went out, Dixon said, the board has received boxes of mail from doctors complying with the request— and some angry calls, too.
"We're getting our fannies chewed about it every day," he said.
There's no indication any of those upset doctors are from Anniston, though. The Star called roughly two dozen area doctors Tuesday and Wednesday to ask about the letter. None called back, though workers in three doctors' offices said compliance with the letter hadn't been a problem.
The state's professional association for doctors said they'd heard only a few complaints.
"It's state law," said Cary Kuhlmann, director of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama. "The Board of Medical Examiners is doing what the law says, and physicians are just doing what they ask."
The director of the Alabama Board of Nursing said her agency has seen some pushback from nurses who don't like the newly required immigration paperwork.
The nursing board got approval to use SAVE in March and sent out letters in April asking nurses to prove their legal residency, director Genell Lee said. Nurses have until Aug. 31 to send in their paperwork, Lee said.
The nursing board has 82,000 licensees, Lee said. Since the letter went out, she said, the board's fax machines have been constantly busy, including on weekends, as nurses send in their paperwork. Lee said all the paperwork will be digitized for legal reasons, and the board will likely hire a new staffer just to handle that job.
Some applicants have refused to send in their papers, Lee said, and haven't been afraid to tell the board their thoughts.
"I've been called a communist and I've been told to put my request where the sun doesn't shine," she said.
Many of those complainants told Lee they were citizens, and didn't understand why the immigration law required them, too, to prove their legal residency.
"They thought it dealt with the other people, not them," Lee said.
Lee said the paperwork load would likely ease after this year. Only some non-citizen nurses have to prove their legal residency every year, and the board gets only about 4,000 to 6,000 new license applications per year, she said.
Things could have been different. Dixon, of the medical board, said the 2011 immigration law originally required all licensees to prove their legal residency every year. A revision of the immigration law, passed in 2012, made the proof-of-residency requirement a one-time thing for most applicants.
Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, was instrumental in passing that change, Dixon said.
"Del Marsh listened to us, and the change was made," Dixon said.
Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.