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US asks court to halt Alabama’s immigration law

By Greg Bluestein
Associated Press / October 8, 2011

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ATLANTA - The federal government asked an appeals court yesterday to stop Alabama officials from enforcing a strict immigration measure that has already driven Hispanic students from public schools and migrant workers from towns, warning that it opens the door to discrimination against even legal residents.

The Department of Justice’s filing to the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit also said that the law, considered by many to be the most stringent immigration rules in the country, could cause considerable fallout as immigrants flee to other states or their native countries.

A coalition of advocacy groups filed a separate appeal yesterday that argued that the law has thrown Alabama into chaos and left some Hispanics afraid to go to their jobs and reluctant to send their children to school.

In the meantime, Governor Robert Bentley of Alabama said he intends to continue enforcing the controversial law, which allows authorities to detain people suspected of being in the country illegally and lets officials check the immigration status of students in public schools.

Those measures took effect last week after a federal judge upheld them, and they help make the Alabama law stricter than similar laws passed in Arizona, Utah, Indiana, and Georgia. Federal judges in those states have blocked all or parts of those measures.

Government lawyers outlined several problems they have with the Alabama overhaul. They worry that the law is likely to expose legal residents “to new difficulties in routine dealings’’ and could force federal authorities to deal with low-risk immigrants, rather than the most dangerous criminals. And they say the attempt to drive illegal immigrants “off the grid’’ could disrupt both diplomatic relationships and national policy.

“Other states and their citizens are poorly served by the Alabama policy, which seeks to drive aliens from Alabama, rather than achieve cooperation with the federal government to resolve a national problem,’’ the filing said.

Immigration has become a hot-button issue in Alabama over the past decade as the state’s Hispanic population grew by 145 percent, to about 185,600. US census figures show the group represents about 4 percent of the state population, but some counties in north Alabama have large Spanish-speaking communities and schools where most of the students are Hispanic.

Alabama Republicans have long sought to clamp down on illegal immigration and passed the law earlier this year after gaining control of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. Bentley signed the measure, saying it was crucial to protect the jobs of legal residents during current economic problems.

House Speaker Mike Hubbard, a Republican, said the state was forced to act because the federal government ignored its responsibility to enforce immigration law.

“In Alabama we believe in obedience to law because it promotes fairness and protects the rights of everybody,’’ Hubbard said. “That’s why instead of just talking about it, we took action to ensure nobody is allowed to cheat the system and ignore our laws.’’

The measure has had an immediate impact. Education officials say scores of immigrant families have withdrawn their children from classes or kept them home from school. Some towns and urban areas have also reported a sudden exodus of Hispanics, some of whom told officials they planned to leave the state to avoid trouble with the law.

A federal judge blocked other portions of the crackdown, including a part that forbids drivers from stopping along a road to hire temporary workers, a ban on businesses from taking tax deductions for wages paid to illegal workers, and a provision that makes it a crime for an illegal immigrant to solicit work.

The judge let other parts of the law stand, concluding that several groups failed to show they met the legal standards to block the law. That coalition, which filed a separate lawsuit, filed its appeal late yesterday.

Advocates hailed the federal government’s action. Allison Neal of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, which was part of the coalition that sued, said she hopes the “11th Circuit will act quickly on this because of the real harm we are seeing here in Alabama.’’

Legal specialists say they expect the Supreme Court to weigh in on the issue eventually, but are uncertain which state will win the race to the court.

“Whether the Alabama one is heard or not, I can’t predict,’’ said Doug Towns, an Atlanta lawyer who specializes in immigration employment law. “But until there’s greater clarity from Congress or the court, there’s going to be more appeals. Opponents say this creates a patchwork approach to immigration policy, and ultimately that needs to be considered by the US Supreme Court.’’

The Justice Department urged the appeals court to forbid states from creating a patchwork of immigration policies. It also said the law could strain diplomatic relations with Latin American countries, who have warned the law could affect millions of workers, tourists, and students in the United States.

The law, the department said, turns illegal immigrants into a “unique class who cannot lawfully obtain housing, enforce a contract, or send their children to school without fear that enrollment will be used as a tool to seek to detain and remove them and their family members.’’