A federal judge in Birmingham is poised to hear arguments from the Obama administration and others Wednesday over whether a new Alabama immigration law constitutes an unfair assault on civil liberties or is a long-overdue effort to protect American jobs and borders.
U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn scheduled a hearing starting at 9 a.m. Wednesday on motions seeking to temporarily block a new state law that's been described by supporters and opponents as the toughest crackdown on illegal immigration in the country. Attorneys said they don't know when Blackburn will rule, but pointed out that she doesn't have much time because the immigration law is set to take effect Sept. 1.
The measure allows police officers, in conducting routine traffic stops, to arrest those they suspect of being illegal immigrants. The law's broad provisions also make it a crime to transport or provide shelter to an illegal immigrant. It also requires schools to report the immigration status of students, a provision opponents say will make many parents afraid to send their children to school.
The lawsuits challenging the law _ filed by the Obama administration, a coalition of civil rights groups and church leaders _ have all been consolidated before the chief federal judge from Alabama's northern district.
The challenges in Alabama are being closed watched nationwide. At issue is just how far Alabama can go in controlling illegal immigration. Injunctions have been issued against all or parts of similar immigration laws in Arizona, Georgia, Indiana and Utah. Impacts are potentially wide-reaching as some Alabama farmers fret they won't find affordable workers to harvest crops and school officials worry over whether the children of illegal immigrants will be denied an education. One provision, critics say, may even create long lines at courthouses by requiring vehicle owners to show proof of citizenship when they buy tags.
The Obama administration argues in its lawsuit that enforcing immigration laws is the job of the federal government, not the states. Another challenge was filed by a coalition of civil rights groups including the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union. A third lawsuit was filed by bishops of the Catholic, United Methodist and Episcopal churches in Alabama and claims the law makes it a crime for Christians to follow the Biblical instructions to be "Good Samaritans" and help one another.
But lawmakers who passed the law argued it was necessary because the federal government had been lax in enforcing immigration laws.
An attorney for the bishops, Augusta Dowd of Birmingham, said she expects the hearing will continue into Wednesday afternoon. She said she doesn't know when a ruling will be issued by Blackburn, a former federal prosecutor who became a federal judge in 1991 after being nominated by George H.W. Bush.
"I know she's very cognizant of the Sept. 1 date," Dowd said.
Sam Brooke, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the civil rights groups will be asking that "the entire law" be tossed out even as their attorneys object to specific provisions of the law.
"This law is unconstitutional in many ways," Brooke added.
Brooklyn Roberts, an attorney and executive director of the Eagle Forum of Alabama, which supports the new law, said she expects some of the major provisions to be upheld in court _ including a provision that requires employers to use a federal system called E-Verify to determine if new workers are in the country legally.
The group pushed for years for such a law, complaining that illegal aliens constitute a security risk and a drain on state resources.
"It took a couple of years, but we finally got something through," Roberts said, adding "we can't continue to let people flood over the border unchecked."
Supporters in the Legislature said the law would protect Alabama jobs and even those immigrants in the country legally.
The bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Micky Hammon, has said it would ease unemployment by opening up jobs currently held by illegal immigrants. More than 200,000 people in Alabama were unemployed in May, according to the latest statistics available.
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates there are about 120,000 illegal immigrants in the state, many believed to be working at farms, chicken processing plants and in construction.
Some Alabama farmers fret, however, that the law will make it difficult to raise a work force at planting and harvesting time.
Tom Bentley, a 65-year-old retired peach farmer, said he stopped farming on most of his property years ago because of the headaches of ensuring his work force was legal. He said he obtained his workers through a federal program that provides documented workers for nine months out of the year, but keeping up with the myriad rules and red tape was time-consuming and expensive.
He warned workers would go pick crops elsewhere in the U.S. without such laws, leaving farmers the trouble of finding local workers willing to work long days picking peaches in the withering summer heat in Alabama. Most say that's a job mainly immigrants are willing to do.
"These folks that are in jail or on welfare aren't going to pick peaches," Bentley said.