A federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked parts of Georgia's strict new law targeting illegal immigration from taking effect, including a provision that authorizes police to check the immigration status of suspects without proper identification and to detain illegal immigrants.
Georgia's became the latest in a string of state laws that have been at least temporarily stopped by legal challenges. All or parts of similar laws in Arizona, Utah and Indiana also have been blocked by federal judges.
Judge Thomas Thrash also granted a request from civil liberties groups to block a part of Georgia's law that penalizes people who knowingly and willingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants while committing another crime.
"The defendants wildly exaggerate the scope of the federal crime of harboring under (the law) when they claim that the Plaintiffs are violating federal immigration law by giving rides to their friends and neighbors who are illegal aliens," he said.
The judge was especially critical of that provision, blasting the state's assertion that federal immigration enforcement is "passive." Thrash noted that federal immigration officers remove more than 900 foreign citizens from the country on an average day.
He also wrote that the state measure would overstep the enforcement boundaries established by federal law. Thrash noted that there are thousands of illegal immigrants in Georgia because of the "insatiable demand in decades gone by for cheap labor" in the agriculture and construction industries. But he said the federal government gives priority to prosecuting and removing illegal immigrants who have committed crimes.
The civil liberties groups had sued to have those and other provisions blocked before they took effect Friday, though Thrash did toss parts of that lawsuit. The groups had argued that the law allows unreasonable seizures; blocks a constitutional right to travel; and restricts access to government services on the basis of national origin. The judge dismissed those claims, along with allegations the measure violates property rights and the state constitution.
Nonetheless, the groups hailed the ruling.
"This is a victory that matches the trend nationally. It should send a really strong signal to other states considering such laws," said Karen Tumlin, a lawyer for the National Immigration Law Center.
Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens said in a statement his office plans to appeal the court's ruling. He said he was pleased that parts of the lawsuit were dismissed.
The law's main sponsor, Republican state Rep. Matt Ramsey, called the judge's ruling a temporary setback.
The judge also was concerned about the wider implications of the law on trade and diplomatic relations, which were laid out by Mexican officials in court documents.
"The conflict is not a purely speculative and indirect impact on immigration. It is direct and immediate," he wrote.
The federal judge also accused the state of "gross hypocrisy" in its argument that Georgia's crackdown would prevent the exploitation of illegal immigrants.
"The apparent legislative intent is to create such a climate of hostility, fear, mistrust and insecurity that all illegal aliens will leave Georgia," he said.
"Curiously, the court writes `all illegal aliens will leave Georgia' if the law is enforced, as if it is appalled at the thought of people attaining visas before coming to our nation," said Brian Robinson, a spokesman for Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal.
Similar laws elsewhere have met similar fates. A federal judge has blocked the most controversial parts of the law in Arizona, where Gov. Jan Brewer has said she plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In Utah, a federal judge temporarily blocked that state's law last month. A hearing is set for mid-July to determine if the law can go into effect. And on Friday, a federal judge blocked parts of Indiana's law.
On Friday, many parts of the law will take effect. Among them is one that makes it a felony with hefty penalties to use false information or documentation when applying for a job. Another creates an immigration review board to investigate complaints about government officials not complying with state laws related to illegal immigration.
Starting Jan. 1, businesses with 500 or more employees will have to use a federal database to check the immigration status of new hires, a requirement that will be phased in for all businesses with more than 10 employees by July 2013. Also starting Jan. 1, applicants for public benefits will have to provide at least one state or federally issued "secure and verifiable" document.