BIRMINGHAM, Ala (Reuters) - Lawyers for the Obama administration and other groups asked a federal judge on Wednesday to temporarily block Alabama’s immigration law, widely seen as the toughest state measure on illegal immigration in the country.
The law, set to take effect on September 1, requires police to detain people they suspect of being in the United States illegally if they cannot produce proper documentation when stopped for any reason.
The law will also make it a crime to knowingly transport or harbor an illegal immigrant, and requires public schools to determine, by reviewing birth certificates or sworn affidavits, the legal residency status of students upon enrollment.
The administration argued that the U.S. Constitution bars states from adopting their own immigration regime that interferes with the federal system. There are an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
“It is important that the country speak with one voice and that voice belongs to the executive branch and the Department of Homeland Security,” Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney General William Orrick said.
Attorneys for the state who defended Alabama’s right to pursue its own crackdown said the federal government’s inaction had served as a motive.
“Despite the clear prohibition of illegal immigration, it is being defied on a daily basis,” Alabama Solicitor General John Neiman said.
Besides Alabama, Georgia, Utah and Indiana are also defending new immigration laws in federal court. The Obama administration successfully sued to block Arizona’s tough law last year and courts have also put key parts of laws in Georgia, Indiana and Utah on hold.
Cecillia Wang, director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, said the Alabama law grants state and local authorities wide-reaching rights to “find, detain, punish and expel” people suspected of being illegal immigrants.
Conservatives have complained the Obama administration has failed to sufficiently stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the country. Attempts to overhaul federal immigration policy have gone nowhere in Congress.
Alabama state Senator Scott Beason, a Republican who sponsored the bill, said the federal government had forced the state into action by declining to help Alabama with its burgeoning illegal immigrant population.
“We asked for help but the federal government is not doing anything about it. They are not following what their laws say,” he said.
More than 200 people packed the courtroom and overflow room of the downtown Birmingham courthouse for Wednesday’s hearing, many of them young people wearing high school graduation robes to protest a ban on seeking financial aid for higher education.
“This law is wrong. It takes my dream of becoming a physician or a nurse and throws the dream away,” said Jose Perez, 15, a sophomore at Pelham High School who came to Alabama 13 years ago and is undocumented.
The group of 30 students calling themselves the Dreamers for the Future hope for laws allowing undocumented students access to in-state tuition and financial aid, or an amnesty similar to that signed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1986.
But in court, Chief Justice of the Northern District of Alabama Sharon Blackburn said education was not a civil right.
She later sounded skeptical that law enforcement would be able to enforce provisions of the new law without profiling.
“How in the world do you think they are going to make these determinations without profiling?” Blackburn said.
Groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and bishops representing Methodist, Episcopal and Catholic denominations have filed civil rights suits against the law.
“People are terrified. They have been coming into our office for three months. They are afraid to enroll their children in school. They are afraid to report crimes: robbery and rapes. We cannot stand by and see injustice,” said Isabel Rubio, Executive Director Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, the lead plaintiff in the challenge to the law.
Under the Alabama law, businesses must also use a database called E-Verify to confirm the immigration status of new employees and could face penalties for knowingly employing someone without legal resident status.
Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Johnston