Meagan Griffin, right, and others march at a student protest of Alabamas… (Tamika Moore, AP )
Reporting from Atlanta — A federal judge Wednesday temporarily blocked portions of Alabama's strict immigration law but upheld others, including a controversial section that requires police to check the residency status of suspected illegal immigrants during traffic stops.
The 115-page ruling by U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn came in response to a Justice Department lawsuit that challenged the Alabama law on grounds that it preempted federal immigration laws.
Known as HB 56 and signed into law by Republican Gov. Robert J. Bentley in June, the legislation is widely considered the strictest among a handful of similar bills passed by states frustrated with what they consider weak immigration enforcement from Washington.
Observers said Wednesday's decision could hasten Supreme Court review of the new patchwork of state immigration regulations, particularly because Blackburn's ruling differed from those of federal judges who blocked Arizona and Georgia from enacting provisions directing police to check the residency status of suspected illegal immigrants.
"It creates a conflict among lower courts, and that raises the probability that the Supreme Court will have to weigh in on it," said Peter Spiro, an immigration law expert at Temple University.
"It's now only a question of timing," he added.
Numerous sections of the Alabama law challenged by the Justice Department but upheld by Blackburn may take effect immediately. Alabama police may now detain people driving without a license in order to check their immigration status. Contracts knowingly entered into with illegal immigrants will be considered invalid, and illegal immigrants will not be allowed to enter into "business transactions" with the state, including applying for driver's or business licenses.
Immigrants caught without required documents will now be guilty of a state crime, a provision that in effect "criminalizes undocumented status," Spiro argued, since being in the country illegally is a violation of civil law, not criminal law, on the federal level.
Among the sections Blackburn blocked: one that would have outlawed illegal immigrants' attempts to solicit or apply for jobs, and another that would have outlawed knowingly harboring or transporting them.
The ruling weighed whether Alabama had overstepped its bounds and violated the U.S. Constitution's supremacy clause, which establishes federal law as the "supreme law of the land."
In general, Spiro found it to be a victory for the forces pushing stricter state-level immigration laws; the judge, he said, seemed relatively hesitant to find that the law's provisions were preempted by federal law.
The law also was challenged in two suits — one by a coalition led by the American Civil Liberties Union, the other by a group of Alabama religious leaders, who worried that the contract-voiding and transportation provisions would hinder their ability to serve their flocks.
The transportation issue was rendered moot, since Blackburn blocked it in the Justice Department case. As for the contracts provision, Blackburn ruled that the religious groups did not show a "realistic danger of sustaining a direct injury" and thus lacked the legal standing to challenge it.
Blackburn's 106-page ruling in the ACLU coalition's lawsuit yielded one significant victory for the law's opponents. It temporarily blocked a section that would have barred illegal immigrants from enrolling in public colleges and universities.
Among other things, Blackburn found that as written, the statute prevented some lawfully present immigrants from enrolling, as well as illegal immigrants.
Bentley called the ruling a victory. "This law was never designed to hurt fellow human beings," Bentley, a dermatologist, added in a televised interview Wednesday. "As a physician I would never ask a sick person if he or she was legal or illegal."
But as governor, he said, it was his job to uphold the law.