Demonstrators in Birmingham pray during a protest of Alabama's new immigration law, on June 25. Churches said the law made it a crime for them to carry out their Christian duty to feed, clothe and shelter the needy.
Demonstrators in Birmingham pray during a protest of Alabama's new immigration law, on June 25. Churches said the law made it a crime for them to carry out their Christian duty to feed, clothe and shelter the needy. Jay Reeves/AP
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 status checks of public school students.
U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn, appointed by Republican President George H.W. Bush, wrote in her 115-page opinion that some parts of the law are in conflict with federal statutes, but others aren't.
She 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; and make it a misdemeanor for an illegal resident not to have immigration papers.
An appeal is all but certain; the state attorney general's office said it was reviewing the decision before commenting.
An order the judge previously issued temporarily blocking the entire law expires Thursday, but it was unclear when the state might begin enforcing the sections of the law that Blackburn allowed. Neither Gov. Robert Bentley nor Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange had any immediate comment.
Blackburn's order temporarily blocked four 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.
Blackburn 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.
She put the entire law on hold last month, but didn't rule on whether it was constitutional, saying she needed more time.
Even though the law didn't take effect as planned at the beginning of the month, NPR's Debbie Elliott tells All Things Considered host Michele Norris that there is "anecdotal evidence that farm workers and construction workers who could have been here illegally are fleeing."
She says the state's agricultural administration has been critical of the law, "recently even asking who's going to rebuild Tuscaloosa, the city recently ravaged by deadly tornadoes, when we are losing people we need to keep this state running."
Elliott says the legal battle over Alabama's law is being watched closely in part because it is considered the toughest in a batch of laws being passed by states governed mostly by conservatives.
"State lawmakers argue that the federal government has somehow abdicated its ability to enforce the nation's immigration laws, so they had to step in here," she says.
Similar, less restrictive laws have been passed in Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia, and federal judges already have blocked all or parts of those.
Immigration became a hot issue in Alabama over the past 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. Republican Gov. Bentley signed it, saying it was vital to protect the jobs of legal residents.
"Alabama's sponsors say this is about protecting jobs for Alabamans and making sure that tight public resources aren't being spent on those who break the law to come into this country," Elliott says. "But the Obama administration argues that these state attempts to regulate immigration overstep federal authority and could interfere, in fact, with foreign policy."
Both supporters and critics say it is the nation's toughest law partly because of a 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 from 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, the 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.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.