- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 24, 2011

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Lawyers for the federal government and for a coalition of civil rights groups asked a federal judge Wednesday to block a new Alabama law cracking down on illegal immigration, arguing that it abridges basic rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom to travel.

Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney General William Orrick told U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn in Birmingham that sections of Alabama’s law - which has been described by opponents and supporters as the toughest such law in the country - should be blocked because they conflict with federal law.

But an Alabama legislator said in an interview that the law was intended to protect the rights of citizens.

Judge Blackburn was holding a hearing on lawsuits filed by the U.S. government, civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, and Alabama church leaders that seek to block the new law signed by Gov. Robert Bentley in June. It is set to take effect Sept. 1.

Mr. Orrick said the new law intrudes on the authority of the federal government. Judges have blocked all or parts of similar laws in Arizona, Utah, Georgia and Indiana.

“There’s no room for the states to be legislating in this area,” Mr. Orrick told Judge Blackburn, who listened to three hours of arguments from opponents of the law Wednesday morning.

Mr. Orrick told Judge Blackburn that the law makes criminals out of people who rent houses to illegal immigrants and in some cases makes it a crime to work.

“It corrodes the reputation of the United States for American values like openness and welcoming others,” he said. He also criticized a section of the law that requires schools to report the immigration status of students, saying it would make parents afraid to send their children to school.

After hearing the arguments from Mr. Orrick and other plaintiffs’ attorneys, Republican state Sen. Scott Beason of Gardendale, one of the lawmakers who sponsored the law, said he did not hear any discussion of the rights of legal Alabama residents.

“I didn’t hear the federal government or the ACLU arguing about the rights of citizens of Alabama who have been displaced from their jobs by these illegal immigrants. Who’s looking out their rights?” Mr. Beason said in an interview.

He defended the provision requiring schools to report immigration status of students, saying the information parents will be asked to provide “is not different from what other parents have to provide.”

“I have to show where my kids were born,” he said.

During the hearing, ACLU lawyer Cecillia Wang questioned a provision of the law allowing police to detain people after a routine traffic stop if they suspect them of being in the country illegally. She said the provision would turn “law enforcement officers into immigration agents” and would subject innocent citizens to detention while their immigration status is being determined.

Judge Blackburn frequently interrupted lawyers and indicated she would address the issues in depth in her written ruling, but she gave no indication when she would rule.

Judge Blackburn told Southern Poverty Law Center lawyer Sam Brooke that she was leaning toward accepting arguments that some parts of the Alabama law pre-empt the authority of the federal government. “I very much want to look at the pre-emptive issues,” said Judge Blackburn, a 1991 appointee of President George H.W. Bush.

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