Bloomberg News

Alabama Immigration Law Can’t Be Enforced, U.S. Judge Rules

August 29, 2011

(Updates with ACLU lawyer’s comment in 17th paragraph.)

Aug. 29 (Bloomberg) -- Alabama’s new immigration law, giving police the power to verify the immigration status of people stopped for questioning, was temporarily blocked by a U.S. judge three days before it was scheduled to take effect.

U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn in Birmingham today barred enforcement of the law that includes provisions requiring police to verify the status of people stopped whom they suspect may be in the country illegally. The law also makes it a crime to knowingly rent housing to unlawful immigrants.

Christian clergy, the federal government and the American Civil Liberties Union asked Blackburn to halt the measure’s enforcement. Alabama deputy attorneys general John Neiman and Misty Fairbanks said the state has the right to police people in its own borders.

“In entering this order, the court specifically notes that it is no way addressing the merits of the motions,” Blackburn said in her two-page decision.

The judge said she’ll determine the legality of the act no later than Sept. 28 and that her order remains in effect until Sept. 29 or until she issues that ruling.

State Attorney General Luther Strange declined to comment on today’s decision, said a spokeswoman, Suzanne Webb.

Federal Database

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley signed the law broadening police powers on June 9, following Arizona Governor Jan Brewer in requiring local authorities to identify illegal immigrants.

The law, which had been set to take effect on Sept. 1, also requires businesses to use the federal E-Verify database to determine whether job applicants are eligible for employment.

Alabama was the fifth U.S. state to adopt laws addressing illegal immigrants, bringing it into conflict with the federal government, which maintains that only it has the power to do so.

“Setting immigration policy and enforcing immigration laws is a national responsibility that cannot be addressed through a patchwork of state emigration laws,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in Aug. 1 press statement announcing the federal government’s filing of lawsuit challenging the Alabama measure.

Leaders of three Christian denominations representing 338,000 Alabama residents also filed suit, as did the ACLU. All three cases were consolidated before Blackburn.

The U.S. Justice Department and the ACLU argued Aug. 24 at a nine-hour hearing that federal law preempts the state measure.

Christian Duties

Birmingham attorney Augusta Dowd, arguing on behalf of the clergy, said the law interfered with carrying out their Christian duties, which include clothing and feeding of undocumented immigrants.

“The U.S. is advocating a dramatic and drastic expansion of power” by claiming the state doesn’t have any jurisdiction with regard to illegal immigration, Neiman said then.

Most provisions of the state’s law apply to Alabama citizens and not undocumented immigrants, Neiman said. The state has a right to police its own citizens and “respect the law,” he said.

“My job is to decide if this is constitutional,” Blackburn told lawyers for both sides that day.

Cecillia Wang, the ACLU attorney who argued before the court on Aug. 24, today said the organization doesn’t view Blackburn’s decision as a vindication of their position because she declined to address the legality of the law.

“The order speaks for itself and no one should try to read into the order which way the judge will rule,” Wang said.

President Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to illegal immigrants in 1986. The U.S. Justice Department declined to comment on Blackburn’s order, Xochitl Hinojosa, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement today.

The cases are Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama v. Bentley, 5:11-cv-2484, Parsley v. Bentley, 5:11-cv-2736, and U.S. v. Bentley, 5:11-cv-2746, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Alabama (Birmingham).

--Editors: Andrew Dunn, Mary Romano

To contact the reporters on this story: Andrew Harris in Chicago at aharris16@bloomberg.net; Laurence Viele Davidson in Atlanta at lviele@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net.


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