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Obama administration asks court to block parts of tough Alabama immigration law

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
October 7, 2011 -- Updated 1807 GMT (0207 HKT)
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley signed his state's immigration bill into law in June.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley signed his state's immigration bill into law in June.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Justice Department asks for an injunction from an appeals court
  • The state of Alabama will have to respond in the coming days
  • Some parts of the law were already blocked by a federal judge

Washington (CNN) -- The Obama administration has asked a federal appeals court to block a tough new immigration law in Alabama from going into effect, saying it "invites discrimination against many foreign-born citizens and lawfully present aliens."

The emergency motion from the Justice Department was filed Friday, and asks the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to quickly issue a temporary injunction, until the larger questions over the measure's constitutionality can be addressed.

A federal judge last month had already temporarily blocked enforcement of some parts of the law known as H.B. 56, while allowing other provisions to go into effect.

Other opponents of the measure -- including state church leaders and the American Civil Liberties Union -- had filed their own separate lawsuits against the state.

At issue is whether H.B. 56 intrudes on the federal government's power over all immigration matters. State officials argue the law would help Alabama and not violate civil rights.

"H.B. 56 creates a panoply of new state offenses that criminalize, among other things, an alien's failure to comply with federal registration requirements that were enacted pursuant to Congress's exclusive power to regulate immigration," said the brief from the federal government.

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Where are Alabama immigrants moving?

State officials will now formally respond in coming days to the Obama administration's motion, and a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit is then expected to issue a decision on the injunction request.

Oral arguments on the larger constitutional issues will likely be held in coming months. The issues may ultimately have to be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The federal judge had upheld a section of the Alabama law requiring that police "attempt to determine the immigration status of a person who they suspect is an unauthorized alien of this country." That provision is similar to other laws aiming to crack down on illegal immigration passed by other state legislatures over the past year.

But Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn blocked the following provisions from being enforced:

--One saying undocumented immigrants in the state are not allowed to "knowingly apply for work, solicit work in a public or private place, or perform work as an employee or independent."

--One banning the "concealing, harboring, transporting, etc., of unlawfully present aliens."

--One prohibiting employers from "taking of a state tax deduction for wages paid to an unauthorized alien."

Another provision going into effect this week requires the state to check immigration status of students in public schools.

During court hearings earlier this summer in Birmingham, Alabama, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center argued the public school portion of the law is unconstitutional.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange told the judge at the hearing the law would not prevent undocumented immigrants from having access to public school education.

Strange also argued that the law is not an anti-immigrant measure, and that the state welcomes visitors.

Several school districts in the state this week have reported a significant number of Hispanic students skipping classes, which many immigrants' rights advocates attributed to the public school provision.

The Justice Department warned of national implications for Alabama's law.

"Other states and their citizens are poorly served by the Alabama policy, which seeks to drive aliens from Alabama rather than achieve cooperation with the federal government to resolve a national problem in a manner consistent with the full range of national interests," according to the federal government motion.

In August, leaders from the Episcopal, Methodist and Catholic churches of Alabama separately sued Alabama's governor, its attorney general and a district attorney over H.B. 56.

Bishops from two of those churches have opposed the provision preventing the harboring or transporting of undocumented aliens, saying it violated their "religious liberties."

"We will continue to provide food, shelter, transportation, housing, and the church's sacraments to all of God's people, regardless of race, class, or citizenship status," said Bishop Henry N. Parsley Jr. of the Episcopal Church's Alabama Diocese and Bishop William H. Willimon of the United Methodist's North Alabama Conference.

But Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, who signed the law in June, has said the law he signed would not have been needed "if the federal government would have done its job and enforced the laws dealing with this problem. However, they have failed to do that."

He added, "This law was never designed to hurt fellow human beings."

Republican Alabama state Rep. John Merrill told CNN in June that the legislation would be "good for Alabama" because it would reduce illegal immigration to the state and "provide equal opportunities for all people who want to come to Alabama legally."

ACLU attorney Andre Segura noted the complexity of Alabama's law compared with other state measures.

The Mexican government had also appealed, arguing the law would promote racial profiling, targeting Hispanics especially.

Alabama's law is considered the strictest in the nation. Key portions of Arizona's immigration reform law have also been blocked while a federal appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court consider various challenges.

The Alabama case is U.S. v. State of Alabama (11-14532).

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