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Alabama judge casts doubt on harsh new illegal immigration law

A federal court judge in Alabama Wednesday raised questions about whether a recent state law restricting illegal immigration has constitutional merit.

By Staff writer / August 24, 2011

Opponents to Alabama's immigration law gather at Court Square in Montgomery, Ala., on July 30. On Wednesday, a federal court judge raised questions about the constitutionality of a recent state law restricting illegal immigration.

Amanda Sowards/Montgomery Advertiser/AP

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A federal court hearing in Alabama Wednesday will determine whether or not a recent state law restricting illegal immigration has constitutional merit. Although the judge has until next week to strike down provisions of the law, critics say the legislation may drive undocumented workers to neighboring states.

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Proponents of the law say that illegal immigrants to the state – whose numbers have increased dramatically over the last 10 years – are taking precious jobs away from legal residents.

In June, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) signed into law what is by some measures the harshest anti-immigration bill in the nation. For example, birth certificates or other papers showing legal resident status will now be required at government agencies and from parents seeking to enroll their children in public schools.

Law enforcement can detain people suspected of entering the country illegally if they do not produce proof of residency and employers or individuals face penalties if they knowingly transport, harbor, or hire illegal immigrants.

Wednesday’s hearing, held in federal court in Birmingham, is the result of numerous lawsuits collectively launched by the Obama administration, national civil rights groups, and state church leaders seeking to block the new law, which goes into effect Sept. 1.

US District Judge Sharon Blackburn said in court Wednesday that she believed “there are a lot of problems” with the statute, but that she would only hear arguments that framed the debate by its legality, opposed to its supposed moral or political merits.

Judge Blackburn acknowledged that the language in the bill as written is unclear on details regarding the process of demanding documentation at police stops and whether state schools have the right to demand the birth certificates of parents. She suggested Alabama lawmakers should have taken longer to define exactly how some procedures would happen under the law.

Blackburn did not say when she would make a final ruling.

There is precedent that at least some aspects of the bill may be struck down. Last year, the Obama administration successfully sued to block a similarly expansive immigration law in Arizona and federal courts have temporarily blocked – either in part or entirely – laws in Georgia, Indiana, and Utah until further review.

The Arizona case is on appeal in the US Supreme Court, which has not yet decided whether it will take the case.

Much of the debate in the courtroom Wednesday focused on state versus federal authority.

US Department of Justice Attorney William Orrick said the federal government overrules the states in immigration enforcement. “A state may not make it impossible for someone to live in this country,” Mr. Orrick said. “It is important that the country speak with one voice and that voice belongs to the executive branch and the Department of Homeland Security.

He suggested that, if passed, the law would also dampen the country’s reputation by corroding “values like opening and welcoming others.”

The law’s defenders argue it was drafted in response to a lack of federal intervention in what they describe as an unenforced immigration policy. “We asked for help but the federal government is not doing anything about it. They are not following what the laws say,” said Sen. Scott Beason (R), a bill co-sponsor.

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