MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A federal crackdown on the use of undocumented immigrant labor is expanding. Immigration and customs enforcement notified a thousand companies yesterday that their hiring records will be inspected. Individual states are also stepping in, taking much more stringent steps to curtail illegal immigration. The latest law comes from Alabama.

As NPR's Debbie Elliott reports, it goes further than other states and is sure to face a legal challenge.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Juana is a typical proud mother. When you walk into her brick ranch house in East Birmingham, photographs of her three children adorn the entryway.

JUANA: This is my daughter, the picture over there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELLIOTT: It's of her oldest daughter when she was just a toddler. Another one shows her now, wearing a blue evening gown, grinning with her older brother at their high school prom. The youngest daughter is 11, the only U.S. citizen in the family. Juana and her husband, Cesar, are from Guatemala. They've lived in Birmingham for more than 12 years without proper documents.

CESAR: I understand I'm not legal. I understand I don't have visa when I come here. But I try to not make problem. Just work, come home, pay the bills, and that's what I do with my family.

ELLIOTT: A law signed by Republican Governor Robert Bentley last week makes many aspects of their lives potentially criminal activity - not just Cesar's landscape and construction work and Juana's housecleaning. Their landlord is forbidden from renting this house to illegal immigrants. They can be arrested if they report a crime or are involved in a traffic accident. Their son can't enroll in a public college, and when their daughters return to public school, they'll be required to provide the immigration status of both the students and the parents.

JUANA: (Through Translator) It's a blow for us.

ELLIOTT: With the help of a translator, Cesar says, for years, they were treated well. But recently, it's become tense.

CESAR: (Through Translator) There - well, there are people who seems like they're racist. That's what we think sometimes.

ELLIOTT: But sponsors of the legislation say it's not about race but jobs. Republican State Senator Scott Beason is from Gardendale, a Birmingham suburb.

State Senator SCOTT BEASON (Republican, Alabama): Thousands upon thousands of illegal aliens are displacing Alabama workers who could be holding those jobs: the construction industry, food service, a number of things, landscaping.

ELLIOTT: Officials estimate there are about 130,000 illegal immigrants in Alabama, in a state of 4.7 million people. Even though that's a fraction of the population, Beason is concerned about how fast the group is growing. The U.S. Census shows that the state's Hispanic population grew 145 percent in the last decade.

House sponsor Representative Micky Hammon calls it an Arizona bill with an Alabama flavor.

State Representative MICKY HAMMON (Republican, Alabama): We are trying to discourage illegal immigrants from coming to the state of Alabama and prevent those that are already here from putting down roots.

ELLIOTT: He works in the construction business in north Alabama and says he's experienced the impact of illegal immigrant labor.

State Rep. HAMMON: When you're in an atmosphere where you do things right and you do things by the law and they have to compete against people that work with an underground market, it's very difficult, especially in tough economic times.

ELLIOTT: Even though the Arizona law and one in Utah have been struck down by the federal courts, Hammon believes Alabama's law will hold up because it's based on federal immigration rules. Opponents disagree.

Ms. MARY BAUER (Legal Director, Southern Poverty Law Center, Alabama): We think the law is clearly unconstitutional.

ELLIOTT: Mary Bauer is legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery.

Ms. BAUER: It contains a number of provisions that have already been declared unconstitutional by a court in Arizona, but it goes far beyond the Arizona law.

ELLIOTT: The civil rights group plans to sue to stop the law.

Ms. BAUER: It kind of reverses the presumption of innocence. It says if you don't have your papers on you and the police have a reasonable suspicion that you're here illegally, they can arrest you and detain you.

Mr. LARRY AMERSON (Sheriff, Calhoun County, Alabama): My name is Larry Amerson. I'm the sheriff in Calhoun County, Alabama.

ELLIOTT: Amerson is troubled by the new burden on local law enforcement.

Mr. AMERSON: Problem is we're supposed to hold them and then turn them over to federal authorities. Well, the issue is if the federal authorities do not accept their custody, then it's kind of like the tar baby. We've got this person that we can't turn loose of. We have to feed him. We have to house him. We have to take care of him.

ELLIOTT: Other provisions also give him pause, like one making it a crime to transport illegal immigrants.

Mr. AMERSON: Theoretically, we could be stopping and arresting people operating a church ministry that's picked up Hispanic children who are illegal aliens and then impounding their bus, arresting the driver and charging them with a felony.

ELLIOTT: The crackdown doesn't go into effect until September, but it's already having the desired effect on illegal immigrants in Alabama.

CESAR: We're scared. We're afraid, and we don't know what to do.

ELLIOTT: In Birmingham, Cesar says there's nothing left for his family here.

CESAR: The only option is go back home and no more American dream.

ELLIOTT: He says, for now, the family is hoping the legal challenge will stop the law from going into effect.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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