published Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Judge upholds key parts of Alabama immigration law

  • photo
    Ashley Hendricks, a University of Alabama student from Huntsville, holds a sign and chants while protesting HB-56 on Wednesday. Approximately 40 students gathered for a protest of the immigration bill on the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

JAY REEVES, Associated Press

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A federal judge refused Wednesday to block key parts of a closely watched Alabama law that is considered the strictest state effort to clamp down on illegal immigration, including a measure that requires immigration checks of public school students.

U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn wrote in a 115-page opinion finding some parts of the law that conflict with federal statutes, but others that don't. Left standing at least temporarily are several key elements that help make the Alabama law stricter than similar laws passed in Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia. Other federal judges already have blocked all or parts of those.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said most of the law was still intact and the state will enforce it. He planned to work with the state attorney general's office to appeal those parts that the judge blocked. The judge's previous order blocking the entire law expires Thursday.

"With those parts that were upheld, we have the strongest immigration law in the country," he said. "I believe that all sections of our law will be upheld."

There are three separate lawsuits against the Alabama law, including the main challenge from President Barack Obama's administration. In all, Blackburn's orders temporarily blocked several parts of the law until she can issue a final ruling. Those measures would:

— Make it a crime for an illegal immigrant to solicit work.

— Make it a crime to transport or harbor an illegal immigrant.

— Allow discrimination lawsuits against companies that dismiss legal workers while hiring illegal immigrants.

— Forbid businesses from taking tax deductions for wages paid to workers who are in the country illegally.

— Bar illegal immigrants from attending public colleges.

— Bar drivers from stopping along a road to hire temporary workers.

— Make federal verification the only way in court to determine if someone is here legally.

The judge could still allow any or allow of those sections to take effect after further litigation.

Blackburn, who was appointed by Republican President George H.W. Bush, heard arguments from opponents including the Obama administration, immigrant-support groups and civil libertarians before it was supposed to take effect Sept. 1. The Justice Department contended the state law encroaches on the federal government's duty to enforce immigration law, and other opponents argued it violated basic rights to free speech and travel.

The judge Blackburn said federal law doesn't prohibit checking students or suspects pulled over by police. She also refused to stop provisions that allow police to hold suspected illegal immigrants without bond; bar state courts from enforcing contracts involving illegal immigrants; make it a felony for an illegal immigrant to do business with the state for basic things like obtaining drivers licenses; and make it a misdemeanor for an illegal resident not to have immigration papers.

Immigration became a hot issue in Alabama over the last decade as the state's Hispanic population grew by 145 percent to about 185,600. While the group still represents only about 4 percent of the population, 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 it, saying it was vital to protect jobs of legal residents.

Agricultural leaders fear those parts of the law could cost farmers money this autumn by scaring away Hispanic workers who are vital to harvesting crops statewide.

"There are some sweet potato farmers in this state it's really going to hurt. I don't know how they're going to get their crops out," said Jeremy Calvert, a farmer in rural Bremen.

Zan Green, a tea party activist in metro Birmingham, said she was happy with the decision, saying citizens of foreign countries have benefitted for years through welfare, entitlements, education, medical care and child tax credits.

"''Judge Blackburn's ruling is the beginning of removing the enormous financial burden of illegal immigration from the backs of Alabama citizens," she said in a statement.

Both supporters and critics say it is the nation's toughest partly because of the section that would require public schools to verify the citizenship status of students and report statistics to the state. Illegal immigrants wouldn't be barred attending public schools, but opponents contend the law is designed to decrease enrollment by creating a climate of fear.

In a statement on behalf of 150 United Methodist pastors who signed a letter opposing the law, Revs. Matt Lacey and R.G. Lyons said church leaders were "pleased to see some of the harsh and far-reaching elements of the law have been struck down."

"We feel that many of these elements, written by members of the State House and Senate who campaign on Christianity, are not representative of the message of Christ who welcomed the stranger despite country of origin or status," they said.

Associated Press Writer Phillip Rawls contributed to this report from Montgomery.

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