By Peggy Gargis
BIRMINGHAM, Ala (Reuters) - Republican Governor Robert Bentley on Thursday signed into law a crackdown on illegal immigration in Alabama that both supporters and critics consider the toughest in the nation.
Under the new measure, police must detain someone they suspect of being in the country illegally if the person cannot produce proper documentation when stopped for any reason.
It also will be a crime to knowingly transport or harbor someone who is in the country illegally. The law imposes penalties on businesses that knowingly employ someone without legal resident status. A company's business license could be suspended or revoked.
The law requires Alabama businesses to use a database called E-Verify to confirm the immigration status of new employees.
"We have a real problem with illegal immigration in this country," Bentley said after signing the law. "I campaigned for the toughest immigration laws and I'm proud of the Legislature for working tirelessly to create the strongest immigration bill in the country."
Alabama is the latest state to follow the lead of a controversial measure passed in Arizona last year. The courts blocked implementation of a provision allowing Arizona police to check the immigration status of people there.
But the U.S. Supreme Court recently endorsed a separate Arizona law requiring employers to use E-Verify. The court also ruled that Arizona could suspend or revoke business licenses of those companies that knowingly hire illegal immigrants.
Alabama's law is unique in requiring public schools to determine, by review of birth certificates or sworn affidavits, the legal residency status of students.
"We fear that it will, in effect, ban the student through fear and harassment," said Shay Farley, legal director of Alabama Appleseed, a nonprofit policy and legal advocacy organization.
Farley said there is also concern about the increased financial burden on schools to collect the information.
"We definitely believe this is the nation's toughest immigration law," said Jared Shepherd, a law fellow with the Alabama American Civil Liberties Union.
The Alabama bill passed the state House of Representatives and Senate by large margins before landing on Bentley's desk. Republicans took over majority control of both chambers of the Alabama legislature last year for the first time in 136 years.
Civil rights and immigrant rights groups mounted a campaign against the measure, urging voters to contact the governor and ask him to veto the bill.
Some pointed to concerns in Georgia, where farmers have complained that tough new curbs on immigration are creating a shortage of seasonal workers before they even go into effect.
But Gene Armstrong, mayor of Allgood, Alabama, a small community where the Hispanic population has grown to almost 50 percent, is not worried.
"We managed in the past without illegal immigrants to pick the tomatoes here, and I haven't heard anyone say that if we sent them all home nobody would be left to do that work," Armstrong said.
"When you have 9 percent unemployment, I think that some people who might not have wanted those jobs previously might reconsider."
Several states have enacted immigration restrictions, even though the issue is supposed to be the responsibility of the federal government.
Immigration rights advocates have sued Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia to block the measures and are vowing to mount a similar legal challenge against Alabama.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)