Appeals Court Defers On Ala., Ga. Immigration Laws

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments Thursday in legal challenges to tough new state immigration laws in Alabama and Georgia. The Justice Department and civil rights groups have sued. At issue are both civil rights violations, and whether states can constitutionally engage in immigration enforcement.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. The question of how far states can go to crack down on illegal immigration was back in a courtroom today. A federal appeals court in Atlanta heard arguments from attorneys representing civil rights groups and the Obama administration. They're challenging strict new immigration laws in Alabama and Georgia. And as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports, those states argue they have a sovereign right to protect their borders.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: During oral arguments before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, U.S. Deputy Assistant Attorney General Beth Brinkmann said, constitutionally, only the United States government can set immigration policy.

BETH BRINKMANN: The regulation of immigration is a matter vested exclusively in the national government. Alabama's state-specific regulation scheme violates that authority. It attacks every aspect of an alien's life and makes it impossible for the alien to live.

ELLIOTT: Among other things, Alabama's law makes it a crime to be illegally present in the state, requires police to check the immigration status of suspects and prohibits both residents and governments from doing any kind of business with illegal immigrants. The Justice Department and civil rights groups say such harsh provisions force illegal immigrants to flee the state, usurping the federal government's authority to decide who stays and who goes.

During the hearing today, Judge Beverly Martin repeatedly asked how people can live if they can't enter into contracts for housing or even sewer service. She questioned Alabama Solicitor General John Neiman about the intent of such provisions.

JUDGE BEVERLY MARTIN: You say this is not a policy of expulsion. I mean, you're not trying to get these folks to leave Alabama.

JOHN NEIMAN: Well, Your Honor, it's - the - obviously, the purpose - one purpose of the entire act was to bolster Congress' policy against illegal immigration and...

MARTIN: I got that. But are you - is it your position that this law is not intended in Alabama to force undocumented aliens to leave Alabama?

NEIMAN: I certainly would not take the position that - I would not take the position that that is not the intent. The question here is what the actual effect of the law is and...

ELLIOTT: Alabama is not going to physically deport anyone, Neiman said, that would be the federal government's decision. Judge Charles Wilson kept the focus on just what role the states have, if any.

JUDGE CHARLES WILSON: Don't we have a strictly legal issue to decide and that's whether or not these Alabama laws are pre-empted by federal law even though they may be harsh?

ELLIOTT: Outside the courthouse, ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project director Cecillia Wang, who argued before the federal panel today, said the harshness of the laws is at issue.

CECILLIA WANG: These laws are intended to drive immigrants out of these two states, Alabama and Georgia. And that is simply not consistent with the Constitution. It's up to the federal government to decide what to do with people who don't have lawful status in the United States.

ELLIOTT: After the hearing, a few dozen protesters gathered on the sidewalk chanting that the laws must go.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Foreign language spoken).

ELLIOTT: Sharon Gruner of Dalton is one of the plaintiffs in the Georgia case. She's a member of a coalition of Latino leaders who say the law's prohibition on transporting illegal immigrants chills their ability to operate.

SHARON GRUNER: Then we can't really help people. We have to ask for document status before loading them in our cars. And so it just restricts our personal freedom of where we want to serve and who we want to serve with and who we want to be associated with.

ELLIOTT: Judge Wilson said the 11th Circuit would not issue its decision until after the U.S. Supreme Court takes up a similar immigration law in Arizona. Oral arguments in that case are up next month. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Atlanta.

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