BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – In a blow to Alabama’s toughest-in-the-nation immigration law, a federal appeals court sided with the Obama administration Friday when it blocked public schools from checking the immigration status of students.
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.
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.
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.
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 ACLU 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.
Advocacy groups that 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 today than it was yesterday,” said Omar Jadwat, an attorney for the ACLU.
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. Ditto 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.