Judge Blocks Some Portions Of Ala. Immigration Law

A federal judge blocked some portions of Alabama's strict immigration law, but others stand. For more, Michele Norris talks to NPR's Debbie Elliott.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. A key court ruling today in the legal battle over whether states can enforce the nation's immigration laws, a federal judge is letting much of a new Alabama law take effect. Civil rights groups, churches and the Justice Department have all tried to challenge the Alabama law and a few provisions will be blocked, at least until they get a full court hearing. NPR's Debbie Elliott has been following the immigration crackdowns coming out of the states, and she joins us now. Hello, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Hi, Michele.

NORRIS: Both sides of the immigration debate seem to agree that Alabama's law is the strictest to date. Does today's ruling change that?

ELLIOTT: You know, not necessarily. It is basically now a crime to be illegally present in the state of Alabama. U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn of Birmingham issued her ruling today and refused to block some of the provisions that are considered the toughest in this new law, for instance, a requirement that public schools must check the immigration status of all students and their parents, another provision that makes it illegal to enter into any contract with an illegal immigrant.

There's also a controversial provision that she let stand that calls on police to check the immigration status of suspects, even if you're just pulled over for a routine traffic stop. And then if their status can't be determined, local officers can detain someone without bond indefinitely. So those parts of the law will remain enforceable despite the lawsuits to block them that came from the U.S. Justice Department and from civil rights groups who had argued that they were unconstitutional.

NORRIS: Debbie, the judge did grant a preliminary injunction for a few other provisions. Walk us through those.

ELLIOTT: One of the ones that you've probably heard the most about was one that would have made it illegal to conceal, harbor, shield or transport, to give a ride to an illegal immigrant. And this was part of the law that some of Alabama's churches sued over. They said this basically made it a crime for them to carry out their Christian duty to feed, clothe and shelter the needy, even to give someone a ride to vacation bible school or the like. And interestingly, the judge ruled that the churches really didn't have a case here, that they had no standing to sue because they had not suffered any harm yet.

However, she said their case was moot because she enjoined the section of the law based on arguments from the U.S. Justice Department. And the federal government had said, look, these provisions preempt federal immigration law. The federal government is in charge here, not states, and they can't step on our toes. Another section that she enjoined under that same argument was one that would have made it unlawful to apply for or perform work if you're undocumented and one that would have prevented those not lawfully present in the U.S. from going to public colleges in the state.

NORRIS: Now, Alabama is just one of several states to pass laws aimed at curbing illegal immigration. What are the big overarching issues in this fight?

ELLIOTT: Well, I think the legal battle over Alabama's laws being watched very closely in part because it is considered the toughest in the batch of these laws that are passed by mostly states that are governed by conservatives. State lawmakers argue that the federal government has somehow abdicated its responsibility to enforce the nation's immigration laws, so they had to step in here. Alabama's sponsors say this is about protecting jobs for Alabamians and making sure that tight public resources aren't being spent on those who break the law to come into this country.

But the Obama administration argues that these states attempts to regulate immigration overstep federal authority and could interfere, in fact, with foreign policy. Federal courts have already blocked parts of similar laws in Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia. And right now, I think we just have to watch as these cases work their way through the federal appeals system to see whether states are going to have a say in immigration policy.

NORRIS: But in Alabama right now, what's been the effect of this law so far?

ELLIOTT: Well, even though the judge had temporarily blocked the law from taking effect as planned on September 1st, there is anecdotal evidence that farm workers and construction workers who could have been here illegally are fleeing. The state's agriculture commissioner has been critical of the new law, recently even asking, you know, who's going to rebuild Tuscaloosa, the city recently ravaged by deadly tornadoes, when we are losing people that we need to keep this state running.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott. Debbie, thank you very much.

ELLIOTT: Thank you.

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