Image: Students sit in the gym
Jay Reeves  /  AP
Some public schools in Alabama have high rates of Hispanic enrollment, such as this grade school in Crossville. Despite being in an almost all-white town, the school is about 65 percent Hispanic.
updated 10/14/2011 2:31:08 PM ET 2011-10-14T18:31:08

Alabama schools may not check the immigration status of students but police may detain immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally, a federal appeals court said Friday in issuing a temporary ruling.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued its order after the Justice Department challenged what is considered to be the toughest immigration law in the nation.

The opinion also blocked a part of the law that allows authorities to charge immigrants who do not carry documents proving their legal status.

A final decision on the law won't be made for months to allow time for more arguments.

State officials say the law is needed to protect the jobs of legal residents, but opponents warn it could lead to discrimination.

The Justice Department has called the Alabama law a "sweeping new state regime" and urged the appeals court to forbid states from creating a patchwork of immigration policies. The agency also said the law could strain diplomatic relations with Latin American countries, who have warned the law could impact millions of workers, tourists and students in the U.S.

The law, it said, turns illegal immigrants into a "unique class who cannot lawfully obtain housing, enforce a contract, or send their children to school without fear that enrollment will be used as a tool to seek to detain and remove them and their family members."

"Other states and their citizens are poorly served by the Alabama policy, which seeks to drive aliens from Alabama rather than achieve cooperation with the federal government to resolve a national problem," the attorneys have said in court documents.

State 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. 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.

Many Hispanics have left Alabama
Since a federal judge upheld much of the law in late September, many frightened Hispanics have been driven away from Alabama, fearing they could be arrested or targeted by police. Construction workers, landscapers and field hands have stopped showing up for work, and large numbers of Hispanic students have been absent from public schools.

To cope with the labor shortage, Alabama agriculture commissioner John McMillan at one point suggested farmers should consider hiring inmates in the state's work-release program.

It's not clear exactly how many Hispanics have fled the state.

On Wednesday, several poultry factories shut down or scaled back operations and many other businesses closed as Hispanics in Alabama skipped work to protest the law.

The work stoppage was aimed at demonstrating the economic contribution of Alabama's Hispanic immigrants. It was unclear exactly how widespread the protests were, but a poultry company spokesman said officials were reporting unusually high absences at plants in northeast Alabama, where much of the state's chicken industry is based.

In the northeast Alabama town of Albertville, numerous Hispanic-owned businesses along Main Street had the lights off and signs that said they wouldn't be open. Mexican restaurants, a bank that caters to Hispanics, small grocery stores and supermarkets were all shuttered.

Jose Contreras owns a restaurant and store on Main Street. He said he was losing about $2,500 in revenue by shutting down.

"We closed because we need to open the eyes of the people who are operating this state," said Contreras, originally from the Dominican Republic and a U.S. citizen. "It's an example of if the law pushes too much, what will happen."

Republican supporters say Alabama's strict new immigration law was intended to force illegal workers out of jobs and help legal residents find work in a state suffering from high unemployment.

Data: 1 in 6 Americans now Hispanic (on this page)

Since a federal judge upheld much of the law two weeks ago, many frightened Hispanics have hid in their homes or fled Alabama. Schools have reported high absentee rates among Hispanic students, and officials said even more students were absent Wednesday, apparently because of the protest.

At Crossville Elementary School in DeKalb County, Principal Ed Burke said about 160 of the school's 600 students weren't in class.

"We normally would have about 20 or 30 out," he said.

Not far from Contreras' businesses, the parking lot was virtually empty at a Wayne Farms poultry plant that employs about 850 people. Company spokesman Frank Singleton said other plants were also reporting unusually high absences.

"We know it's related to the immigration law. I don't think it's going to be just today," he said.

The protests were being promoted partly through Facebook and other social media, as well as a Spanish-language radio station in Birmingham. Supporters say they want to show the economic impact of Hispanic people in Alabama and demonstrate solidarity in opposition to the law.

There are an estimated 185,000 Hispanics in Alabama. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 70 percent of the state's Hispanic residents are Mexican.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Illegal immigrants ask others to care for kids if deported

  1. Closed captioning of: Illegal immigrants ask others to care for kids if deported

    >>> meantime, terrified by alabama's strict new immigration crackdown parents living in that state illegally say they're doing something that was absolutely unthinkable days ago. they've been asking friend, relatives and even co workers to care for their children if they're arrested or deported. i'm joined by hector flores , former president of lulac, the league of united latin american citizens . good morning. it's good to see you.

    >> good morning.

    >> what is your reaction? are you surprised that there are actually parents signing documents allowing others to take their children if they're deported?

    >> not at all. they're terrorized at the moment feeling that perhaps this law may not be implemented, but obviously, you know, that parents are, you know, strong decide whether it's worth staying in the state of alabama or having to go back home or go to other states that are more friendly to people that are basically preparing many of their meals, picking all their crops and doing all of the heavy lifting with the agricultural economy in the state.

    >> on friday the justice department asked to block enforcement of this law, but the argument that a lot of folks make in these individual states is they have to do this because the federal government isn't doing its job. what's it going to take comprehensive national immigration reform ?

    >> well, hopefully this light at the end of the tunnel in that we value the people that are here with or without documents that are contributing members of different community, but particularly where there's a need for labor-intensive industries, agricultural being one of those. but also in manufacturing and other areas where these are the jobs that are dangerous or low pay, but are very labor intensive . so i think th industrial base recognizes the fact that we have these labor needs and how are we going to address those? we know that from experience in states like california where the department of labor and the farmworkers organization actually opened these jobs to americans and very few, if any, apply to some of these jobs so we than there's a great need for the labor force this year. obviously, they wouldn't be here.

    >> let's talk about what's going on in california ? because the second part of the dream act has been signed into law by jerry brown . illegal immigrants can apply for state scholarships and state aid at state universities . critics have been complaining that this new law will undermine immigration laws and it will encourage illegal immigration and we'll have a flood of people thinking they can go to college for free. what's your reaction to those critics.

    >> well, first of all, i think we're jubilant that california is a progressive state from other times in its history where we have many other law were very anti-immigrant laws that were passed by governors and have really hurt the state. not only that, but we know that the children that are here, the the children of parents that are working and they're undocumented are here through no fault of their own, but that these same parents that we're trying to deport are also the ones paying into tax coffers. so it seems reasonable that these children should also have the same opportunity to grab the ring or get the apple of a good, quality education and it should be done at the same level as residents of the state. they graduated from our schools and our society and our country in that stateme already have an investment in the children. even in the hard economic times we're suffering these are going to be our leaders. obviously they're preparing themeses academically. they're not out there being gang bangers and other things of that nature. these are some people that are reaching for the american dream , and i think it's something that other states should consider instead of all those anti-immigrant laws that have been passed like alabama and other states.

    >> hector flores , thank you very much for taking the time to talk us to today.

Photos: Alabama Immigration Law

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Timeline: Immigration to the U.S.

A look at immigration policy since 1790

  1. Immigrants Arriving at Ellis Island
    Buyenlarge / Getty Images
    Above: Timeline Immigration to the U.S.
  2. Data Hispanic-Americans

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