BIRMINGHAM, Ala (Reuters) - Two Justice Department officials said they returned to Alabama on Monday as “boots on the ground” to sift through some of the more than 1,000 e-mails and calls received on a hotline fielding concerns about the state’s tough new immigration law.
“The more we hear, the more concerned we are about the impact of Alabama’s immigration law on a wide range of federal rights,” U.S. Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez told reporters at a briefing in Birmingham.
Perez, who leads the department’s Civil Rights Division, said he and fellow Assistant Attorney General Tony West would meet with people in the business, nonprofit and faith communities to learn more about the complaints received.
He said the department continued to be concerned about students who were dropping out or frequently absent from school, as well as claims of racial profiling and some employers using the law as an excuse to not pay workers.
“Employers who continue to use (the law) as an escape valve should know that we’re here, that we will prosecute,” Perez said. “That is impermissible. Period.”
The attorneys said their investigation into the law’s impact was separate from an ongoing legal challenge by the Obama administration and a coalition of civil rights groups seeking to block it.
The law, which passed by large margins in both chambers of the Republican-led legislature earlier this year, has been described by supporters and opponents as the nation’s toughest state crackdown on illegal immigration.
In October, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, based in Atlanta, halted a controversial provision that would allow Alabama to require public schools to determine the legal residency of children upon enrollment.
But the court ruled the state could continue to authorize police to detain people suspected of being in the country illegally if they cannot produce proper documentation when stopped for any reason.
Federal judges have blocked key parts of other immigration laws passed in Georgia, Arizona, Utah and Indiana. The Justice Department was also seeking to halt parts of South Carolina’s new immigration law, which is set to take effect in January.
West said the state-by-state approach was making immigration problems worse, not better.
“That kind of patchwork affects the quality of cooperation between state and federal law enforcement, making it harder to enforce immigration law consistently and efficiently throughout the country,” West said.
Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Johnston