By Greg Bluestein/The Associated Press
ATLANTA — A federal appeals court on Friday blocked a key part of Alabama’s law that requires schools to check the immigration status of students, temporarily weakening what was considered the toughest immigration law in the nation.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also blocked a part of the law that allows authorities to charge immigrants who do not carry documents proving their legal status. The three-judge panel let stand a provision that allows police to detain immigrants that are suspected of being in the country illegally.
The ruling was only temporary. A final decision on the law won’t likely be made for months.
Groups who challenged the law said they were hopeful the judges would eventually block the rest of it.
“I think that certainly it’s a better situation today for the people of Alabama today than it was yesterday,” said Omar Jadwat, an attorney for the ACLU, which challenged the law along with the Obama administration. “Obviously we remain concerned about the remainder of the provisions, and we remain confident that we will eventually get the whole scheme blocked.”
Supporters of the law also claimed a partial victory.
Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard, who championed the law, said the “most effectual parts” of the law will remain in place.
“We’ve said from the beginning that Alabama will have a strict immigration law and we will enforce it. Alabama will not be a sanctuary state for illegal aliens, and this ruling reinforces that,” he said.
The judges also let stand parts of the law that bar state courts from enforcing contracts involving illegal immigrants and make it a felony for an illegal immigrant to do business with the state for basic things like getting a driver’s license.
Alabama Republicans have long sought to clamp down on illegal immigration and passed the law earlier this year after gaining control of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley signed the measure, saying it was crucial to protect the jobs of legal residents amid the tough economy and high unemployment.
The law has already had a deep impact in Alabama since a federal judge upheld much of it in late September. Many frightened Hispanics have been driven away from Alabama, fearing they could be arrested or targeted by police. Construction workers, landscapers and field hands have stopped showing up for work, and large numbers of Hispanic students have been absent from public schools.
To cope with the labor shortage, Alabama agriculture commissioner John McMillan at one point suggested farmers should consider hiring inmates in the state’s work-release program.
It’s not clear exactly how many Hispanics have fled the state. Earlier this week, many skipped work to protest the law, shuttering or scaling back operations at chicken plants, Mexican restaurants and other businesses.
Immigration has become a hot-button issue in Alabama over the past decade as the Hispanic population has grown by 145 percent to about 185,600 people, most of them of Mexican origin. The Hispanic population represents about 4 percent of the state’s 4.7 million people, but some counties in north Alabama have large Spanish-speaking communities and schools where most of the students are Hispanic.
Requiring school officials to check the immigration status of students in public schools helped make the Alabama law stricter than similar measures enacted in Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia. Federal judges in those states have blocked all or parts of those laws.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer earlier this year asked the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve the legal fight over her state’s tough immigration law.
The Justice Department called the Alabama law a “sweeping new state regime” in court filings last week and urged the appeals court to forbid states from creating a patchwork of immigration policies. The agency also said the law could strain diplomatic relations with Latin American countries, who have warned the law could impact millions of workers, tourists and students in the U.S.
“Other states and their citizens are poorly served by the Alabama policy, which seeks to drive aliens from Alabama rather than achieve cooperation with the federal government to resolve a national problem,” the attorneys have said in court documents.
Thomas Perez, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said Friday before the ruling that a team of attorneys is in Alabama trying to determine whether the law was leading to civil rights violations. The school requirement was an area of particular worry, and the federal government is trying to determine how many absentees and withdrawals might be linked to the law, Perez said.
“We’re hearing a number of reports about increases in bullying that we’re studying,” he said after a meeting with leaders and advocates for the Hispanic community.
Legal experts are closely watching the Alabama case, which they say has the potential to be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I’m not convinced that the Supreme Court is going to take it up. But it depends on how 11th Circuit will rule in this case,” said Charles Kuck, a Georgia attorney who is the former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “They are holding the key hand here. But you just never know.”
Follow Bluestein at http://www.twitter.com/bluestein. Associated Press reporters Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala. and Kate Brumback in Atlanta contributed to this report.