Image: State Rep. Jeremy Oden, standing, addresses 50 farmers during a meeting about Alabama's new law against illegal immigration
Jay Reeves  /  AP
State Rep. Jeremy Oden, standing, addresses around 50 farmers during a meeting about Alabama's new law against illegal immigration on Sept. 19 in Good Hope, Ala. The farmers say crops are at risk because the law has scared away many of the Hispanic workers they normally rely upon for harvest.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 9/29/2011 6:33:48 AM ET 2011-09-29T10:33:48

Police in Alabama are getting ready to enforce what is considered by many as the toughest immigration law in the United States.

Beginning Thursday, authorities can question people suspected of being in the country illegally and hold them without bond, and officials can check the immigration status of students in public schools, Gov. Robert Bentley said.

Those two key aspects of Alabama's new law were upheld by a federal judge on Wednesday.

The governor said parts of the law take effect immediately.

"Today Judge Blackburn upheld the majority of our law," Gov. Robert Bentley said in a brief statement he delivered outside the State Capitol in Montgomery, The New York Times reported. "With those parts that were upheld, we have the strongest immigration law in the country."

However, he also said that the law "was never de­signed to hurt fellow human beings," according to the Montgomery Advertiser. "As a physician, I would never ask a sick per­son if she was legal or illegal. But as governor of this state, it is my sworn duty to uphold this state's laws, and that is what I intend to do," Bentley said.

Video: Alabama to enforce ‘strongest’ immigration law (on this page)

Left standing were several key elements that help make the Alabama law stricter than similar laws passed in Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia. Other federal judges have blocked all or parts of those.

Appeal expected
There are three separate lawsuits against the Alabama law, including a challenge from President Barack Obama's administration. Blackburn's ruling is expected to be appealed.

Image: Students sit in the gym at Crossville Elmentary School in Crossville, Ala.
Jay Reeves  /  AP
Students sit in the gym at Crossville Elmentary School in Crossville, Ala., on Aug. 17. Despite being in an almost all-white town, the school's enrollment is about 65 percent Hispanic.

John Carroll, a former U.S. magistrate judge who is now dean of Samford University's law school in suburban Birmingham, said Blackburn's ruling was mostly consistent with decisions from other states with the exception of her allowing Alabama's "stop and ask" provision, which lets police request people's immigration papers.

"I think down the line there are other arguments that can be made as the case goes forward," said Carroll.

Agricultural leaders fear the law could cost farmers money this autumn by scaring away Hispanic workers who are vital to harvesting crops statewide.

"There are some sweet potato farmers in this state it's really going to hurt. I don't know how they're going to get their crops out," said Jeremy Calvert, a farmer in rural Bremen.

Zan Green, a Tea Party activist in metro Birmingham, said she was happy with the decision, saying citizens of foreign countries have benefited for years through welfare, entitlements, education, medical care and child tax credits.

"Judge Blackburn's ruling is the beginning of removing the enormous financial burden of illegal immigration from the backs of Alabama citizens," she said in a statement.

"We're really disappointed," Andre Segura of the American Civil Liberties Union, a plaintiff in one of the suits, told The New York Times. "We already know that this is going to cause a lot of problems in Alabama."

Pam Long, an Auburn University Montgomery professor who was also a plaintiff in the suit, told the Montgomery Advertiser that she was concerned that un­documented immigrants might be denied basic services.

"If people are paying for services like water and electricity, why would any­body care what their status is when you're connecting electricity and water?" she told the Advertiser.

Schools to verify citizenship
The judge refused to block a section of the law that requires public schools to verify students' citizenship and report overall statistics to the state, but the immediate effect isn't clear since schools have already started. Alabama was the first state to include such a provision, so Blackburn's decision could set a blueprint should others adopt similar laws.

Immigration became a hot issue in Alabama over the past decade as the state's Hispanic population grew by 145 percent to about 185,600. While the group still represents only about 4 percent of the population, some counties in north Alabama have large Spanish-speaking communities and schools where most of the students are Hispanic.

Video: Alabama's immigration law under fire (on this page)

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. Bentley signed it, saying it was vital to protect jobs of legal residents.

Republican Sen. Scott Beason, one of the sponsors of the bill, was happy with Blackburn's decision and hopes, like the governor, that the entire law takes effect after appeals.

"There are still legal questions and there's still work to be done," he said.

Blackburn's orders temporarily blocked several parts of the law until she can issue a final ruling. Those measures would:

  • Make it a crime for an illegal immigrant to solicit work.
  • Make it a crime to transport or harbor an illegal immigrant.
  • Allow discrimination lawsuits against companies that dismiss legal workers while hiring illegal immigrants.
  • Forbid businesses from taking tax deductions for wages paid to workers who are in the country illegally.
  • Bar illegal immigrants from attending public colleges.
  • Bar drivers from stopping along a road to hire temporary workers.
  • Make federal verification the only way in court to determine if someone is here legally.

Peter Spiro, a law professor at Temple University, told the Times that the decision "really gives the anti-immigration folks more of a victory than they've been getting in other courts."

"There's a lot for them to be happy about," he said, but he added that, "this is not the last word on the constitutionality of this statute."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Alabama to enforce ‘strongest’ immigration law

  1. Closed captioning of: Alabama to enforce ‘strongest’ immigration law

    >>> now to alabama where a federal judge upheld the toughest immigration law in the country. a law that tells elementary schools to investigate their kids. one commentator today called this arizona on steroids in terms of immigration. opponents of the law are promising a fight. nbc's kerry sanders in birmingham, alabama , for us tonight. kerry, good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. the state immigration law is now on the books here. but those who will have to enforce it are yet to figure out just how they will do that. today, police in alabama have new power. teachers have new responsibilities -- to check people's birth certificates and to enforce what, until now, was federal immigration law . not everyone welcomes the new authority.

    >> we don't believe that teachers in alabama public schools should be converted to immigration officers. it's not our job to police the children that come to public school every day. it is our job to teach.

    >> reporter: it is estimated more than 120,000 alabama citizens are here illegally. the cost to taxpayers, $290 million.

    >> it would not have been necessary to address this problem if the federal government would have done its job and enforced the laws dealing with this problem. [ speaking in a foreign language ]

    >> reporter: 39-year-old amanda said she left el salvador and illegally entered the u.s. four years ago. in alabama she cleans houses and babysits.

    >> translator: i'm afraid that i will go to work and i don't know if i'm ever going to return to my house.

    >> reporter: that's the goal, in part, say alabama lawmakers, to scare undocumented immigrants like amanda so she deports herself.

    >> it's about getting the illegal work force to move out and letting alabamaians to plug into those jobs.

    >> reporter: americans won't take jobs picking crops. this mexican-american says in this southern state with the ugly history she sees something else in the law.

    >> i think it's just hate, not really about jobs.

    >> reporter: alabama joins four other states with similar state immigration laws .

    >> this is too delicious an issue for politicians not to exploit and that's what's going on. exploiting the public's fear that jobs are being taken away. the borders are being overrun.

    >> reporter: officials in alabama say no roadblocks or round-ups are planned but school officials say they will begin implementing this law by checking the birth certificates of new students enrolling in schools here. brian?

    >> kerry sanders in birmingham for us tonight. kerry, thanks. there

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