A federal appeals court sided with the Obama administration Friday when it blocked Alabama public schools from checking the immigration status of students, dealing a blow to Alabama's toughest-in-the-nation immigration law.
The decision from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also said police can't charge immigrants who are unable to prove their citizenship, but it let some of the law stand, giving supporters a partial victory. The decision was only temporary and a final ruling wasn't expected for months, after judges can review more arguments.
Unlike crackdowns in other states, Alabama's law was left largely in effect for about three weeks, long enough to frighten Hispanics and drive them away from the state. Construction businesses said Hispanic workers had quit showing up for jobs and schools reported that Latino students stopped coming to class.
While the long-range implications of the decision remain to be seen, immigrants celebrated the judges' ruling. Word spread quickly through the state's Hispanic community as Spanish-language radio stations aired the news.
"When I listened to that, I started crying. I called my friends and said, 'Listen to the radio.' We're all happy," said Abigail, an illegal immigrant who didn't want her last name used because she feared arrest.
Before the ruling, Armando Cardenas said he was thinking about leaving Alabama because of the possibility of being arrested as an illegal immigrant and the hostility he now feels from residents. Now, Cardenas said he will stay for at least awhile longer.
"It's not easy to leave everything you have worked so hard for," Cardenas said.
The judges let stand part of the law that allows police to check a person's immigration status during a traffic stop. Courts also can't enforce contracts involving illegal immigrants, such as leases, and it's still a felony for an illegal immigrant to do business with the state for basic things like getting a driver's license, the judges ruled. Their 16-page decision contained very little discussion about their ruling.
The appeals court blocked part of the law that required school officials to verify the citizenship status of students enrolled after Sept. 1. It also barred enforcement of a section that let police file a misdemeanor charge against anyone who is in the country illegally and doesn't have federal registration papers.
The Obama administration and a group of immigrant advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state of Alabama after the law was passed in June. A federal judge upheld much of it late last month, and the Obama administration and the groups appealed.
Alabama Republicans said the law was needed to protect the jobs of legal residents. House Speaker Mike Hubbard, who championed the measure, praised the panel for allowing the "most effectual parts" of the law to 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.
Republicans in the state 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 the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era that ended in the 1870s. 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.
"Unfortunately, by failing to do its job, the federal government has left the problem of dealing with illegal immigration to the states," Bentley said in a statement. "Alabama needed a tough law against illegal immigration. We now have one. I will continue to fight to see this law upheld."
Advocacy 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 than it was yesterday," said Omar Jadwat, an attorney for the ACLU. "Obviously we remain concerned about the remainder of the provisions, and we remain confident that we will eventually get the whole scheme blocked."
It's not clear exactly how many Hispanics have fled the state, but earlier this week many skipped work to protest the law, shuttering or scaling back operations at chicken plants and other businesses.
Alabama's law is in the spotlight because it's the only state where some of the strictest provisions were allowed to play out.
Arizona led the nation in April 2010 when it passed a tough crackdown, but a judge blocked parts of it before it could take effect. Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the justices have yet to decide whether to take up the case.
A similar measure adopted in Utah earlier this year was put on hold by a federal judge in May after civil rights groups challenged it. The same for parts of new immigration laws passed by Georgia and Indiana.
South Carolina became a flashpoint this week when civil rights groups sued the state to block a law that takes effect in January, requiring police to check suspects' immigration status and mandating that all businesses check their hires through a federal online system.
The Justice Department called the Alabama law a "sweeping new state regime" and urged the appeals court to forbid states from creating a patchwork of immigration policies. Thomas Perez, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, said he was particularly concerned about the school requirement.
"We're hearing a number of reports about increases in bullying that we're studying," said Perez, who said the government is trying to determine how many absences and withdrawals are linked to the law.
Some critics say the damage has already been done.
Nelly Tadeo, a legal U.S. resident from Mexico, said she notices icy stares in Walmart and feels like whites and blacks are wondering if she is legal and pays taxes.
"Even if the law gets canceled, Alabama is not going to be the same. Now, people are just looking at you like, 'You're an illegal immigrant,'" said Tadeo. "I think that's permanent. A lot of people never thought about who was illegal, who was legal before. Now that's what they're thinking about."
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