Court Delivers Mixed Ruling on Ala. Immigration Law

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has delivered a mixed ruling on an Alabama immigration law. For now, police can still detain people suspected of being illegal immigrants. But schools can no longer check the immigration status of students. Guy Raz talks to NPR's Debbie Elliott for more.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

There are new restrictions today on Alabama's tough immigration law. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has blocked key sections of the law, calling them unconstitutional. But the state can continue to enforce other parts of its crackdown on illegal immigration. NPR's Debbie Elliott has been following the story and she joins us now.

Debbie, how has the federal appeals court curtailed the law?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Well, at least temporarily for now, the court is blocking enforcement of a couple of provisions that have been controversial and gotten a lot of coverage over the past few weeks. One of them is a provision that makes it a crime not to have documents proving you are in the country legally. In other words, everybody had to have their papers on them or they could be subjected to a misdemeanor charge.

And secondly, a section that called on public schools to record the immigration status of new students. Schools could not prevent anyone from enrolling in school, but they did have to report back to the state information about which students didn't have birth certificates or other documents showing that they are here legally.

Now, as far as the rest of the law goes, the provisions that were in place, the three judge panel left those intact. That means police can still detain suspects on reasonable suspicion that they're in the country illegally and it's against the law for illegal immigrants to enter into any kind of contracts with state or local governments, say, if you're applying for a driver's license or trying to get your water turned on.

RAZ: And Debbie, remind us how this case ended up at the federal appeals court level.

ELLIOTT: Well, this is actually a ruling in response to an emergency request that was filed by the Justice Department and a coalition of civil rights groups who are suing over the law. They had asked the 11th Circuit to temporarily block the law so that they could pursue their constitutional challenges after a federal judge in Birmingham, a lower court, had left intact much of the law.

The Obama administration is arguing here that when it comes to immigration, that is a federal function, that their states can't create their own schemes all over the place, that that's not provided in the Constitution.

But Alabama is arguing in this case that its law really is just cooperating with federal rules. It's identifying and reporting illegal immigrants, something that they argue - the state's Republican leaders argue that the federal government has failed to do.

RAZ: And Debbie, what has been the effect of Alabama's law so far?

ELLIOTT: You know, thus far, most of the reports are anecdotal in nature, but there have been a lot of reporters, including reporters for NPR. We've been out talking to people, trying to figure out what's going on. There are no hard figures that anybody has compiled, but the main thing you're seeing is sort of a vanishing of Hispanics, both people who are here legally and illegally.

Schools are reporting that they have higher than usual absenteeism and outright withdrawals, families that are taking their children out of school. And the reason behind that, from talking to folks in some of these communities, is that they're afraid of some of these provisions that are still in place, particularly if you're illegal and you don't have a driver's license and you're pulled over for a traffic violation, people are afraid that they're going to be detained indefinitely, they're going to go to jail, that deportation is going to begin.

And they don't know what will happen to their children in that case. Say their children are still in school and they're picked up and put in jail. What's going to happen? So people have either been fleeing to other states or they've sort of just been hiding away, staying at home and not getting out in public.

RAZ: Debbie, thanks so much.

ELLIOTT: Thank you, Guy.

RAZ: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott talking about the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision to block key sections of Alabama's immigration law.

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