Alabama Wins in Ruling on Its Immigration Law
Meagan Griffin in an immigration law protest on Wednesday near the campus of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Published: September 28, 2011
A federal judge on Wednesday upheld most of the sections of Alabama’s far-reaching immigration law that had been challenged by the Obama administration, including portions that had been blocked in other states.
Kent Faulk/The Birmingham News, via Associated Press
Judge Sharon Blackburn upheld most parts of a measure.
The decision, by Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn of Federal District Court in Birmingham, makes it much more likely that the fate of the recent flurry of state laws against illegal immigration will eventually be decided by the Supreme Court. It also means that Alabama now has by far the strictest such law of any state.
“Today Judge Blackburn upheld the majority of our law,” Gov. Robert Bentley said in a brief statement he delivered outside the State Capitol in Montgomery. “With those parts that were upheld, we have the strongest immigration law in the country.”
The judge did issue a preliminary injunction against several sections of the law, agreeing with the government’s case that they pre-empted federal law. She blocked a broad provision that outlawed the harboring or transporting of illegal immigrants and another that barred illegal immigrants from enrolling in or attending public universities.
The governor, in his statement, said he believed even the sections that were temporarily enjoined on Wednesday would eventually be upheld, and added that the state would consider appealing if that did not happen.
For the most part, Judge Blackburn, who was appointed by the elder President George Bush, disagreed with the Justice Department’s arguments, including those that had been successful in challenges to laws in Arizona and Georgia.
The judge upheld a section that requires state and local law enforcement officials to try to verify a person’s immigration status during routine traffic stops or arrests, if “a reasonable suspicion” exists that the person is in the country illegally. And she ruled that a section that criminalized the “willful failure” of a person in the country illegally to carry federal immigration papers did not pre-empt federal law.
In both cases, she rejected the reasoning of district and appeals courts that had blocked similar portions of Arizona’s law. Legal experts expected the Justice Department to appeal.
“The department is reviewing the decision to determine next steps,” Xochitl Hinojosa, a department spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We will continue to evaluate state immigration-related laws and will not hesitate to bring suit if, in fact, a state creates its own immigration policy or enforces state laws in a manner that interferes with federal immigration law.”
The Alabama law was the latest, and broadest, of the state laws against illegal immigration, going further than one passed in Arizona.
While Alabama is estimated to have a relatively small population of people who are in the country illegally, the numbers have been growing.
Acting on a pledge that they would crack down on illegal immigration, Republicans passed the bill when they won a supermajority in the State Legislature in the 2010 elections. Mr. Bentley signed it into law in June.
Del Marsh, the Republican president pro tem of the Alabama Senate, said in a statement after Wednesday’s ruling, “Our goal has always been to make sure Alabama jobs and taxpayer-funded resources are going to legal Alabama residents, and Judge Blackburn’s ruling is a significant win for this cause.”
All summer, rallies for and against the law have been taking place throughout the state. Farmers and even the state agriculture commissioner have raised concerns about the law’s effect on farms, sheriffs have condemned it as too onerous for financially hurting counties and others have worried that it could seriously hinder the state’s efforts to rebuild after last April’s devastating tornadoes.
The law’s backers argued that most of the concerns arose out of a misreading of the law that they believed in some cases was intentional.
The judge ruled on three suits challenging the law on Wednesday, one brought by the federal government, another by a group of church leaders and another brought by civil rights groups.
She dismissed the suit brought by church leaders, who had argued that the law prevented them from carrying out crucial duties of their ministry, concluding that they did not have standing to challenge one part of the law and that she had addressed the other challenge in her ruling on the federal law.
Judge Blackburn agreed with the arguments of the civil rights groups on several sections or subsections of the law, but did not address many of their arguments because they overlapped with those put forth in the Justice Department’s suit.
“We’re really disappointed,” said Andre Segura of the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents plaintiffs in one of the suits. “We already know that this is going to cause a lot of problems in Alabama.”
The civil rights groups are planning an appeal.
Among the other sections Judge Blackburn upheld: one that nullifies any contracts entered into by an illegal immigrant; another that forbids any transaction between an illegal immigrant and any division of the state, a proscription that has already led to the denial of a Montgomery man’s application for water and sewage service; and, most controversially, a section that requires elementary and secondary schools to determine the immigration status of incoming students.
The civil rights groups challenged this last section on the ground that it would unlawfully deter students from enrolling in school, even if it did not explicitly allow schools to turn students away. The judge dismissed their challenge for lack of standing, though she did not rule on the argument’s merits.
Peter J. Spiro, a law professor at Temple University, said: “This decision really gives the anti-immigration folks more of a victory than they’ve been getting in other courts. There’s a lot for them to be happy about.”
Still, Professor Spiro added, “This is not the last word on the constitutionality of this statute.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: September 30, 2011
An article on Thursday about a federal judge’s ruling that upheld most of Alabama’s far-reaching immigration law misstated the role of the American Civil Liberties Union in one of the lawsuits challenging the law. The A.C.L.U. represents plaintiffs in the suit; it is not itself a plaintiff.