- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A federal judge on Wednesday said Alabama law enforcement officers can try to check the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally, but blocked other parts of the state’s new crackdown law, which is the toughest in the country.

U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn said Alabama is allowed to tread anywhere that federal law doesn’t explicitly prohibit states from acting, which means the state can enact its own penalties for immigrants who fail to carry their registration papers, and can enable its state and local police to check immigration status.

“Local officials have some inherent authority to assist in the enforcement of federal immigration law, so long as the local official ‘cooperates’ with the federal government,” the judge said in her 115-page decision.

And in a key part of her ruling, Judge Blackburn said the state can require schools to determine the legal status of students’ parents, though children of illegal immigrants may not be denied attendance.

But the judge did block four parts of Alabama’s law that she said go beyond what federal law allows: One provision created a civil action against employers who hired illegal immigrants over legal workers; another banned illegal immigrants from applying for a job; one made it a crime to harbor an illegal immigrant; and the other prohibited businesses from claiming tax deductions on wages paid to illegal immigrants.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley called the decision vindication for the state, and promised to appeal those parts of the law that were blocked.

“This fight is just beginning,” he said. “I am optimistic that this law will be completely upheld, and I remain committed to seeing this law fully implemented. I will continue to fight at every turn to defend this law against any and all challenges.”

The ruling marks a setback for the Obama administration, which had challenged the law along with several Alabama immigrant rights and religious groups, arguing only the federal government can regulate immigration.

Judge Blackburn, a 1991 appointee of President George H.W. Bush, disagreed, saying there are places where federal law invites cooperation, and places where it explicitly precludes it, and states are free to help in the former instance — as long as they don’t go beyond national law.

“Nothing in the text of [federal immigration law] expressly preempts states from legislating on the issue of verification of an individual’s citizenship and immigration status,” she wrote. “There is also nothing in the [law] which reflects congressional intent that the United States occupy the field as it pertains to the identification of persons unlawfully present in the United States.”

Late last month, Judge Blackburn had halted the entire law, saying she needed time to study it before issuing a full ruling, which she had promised before the end of September.

Her ruling puts her at odds with other federal courts that overturned Arizona’s crackdown law, passed last year. In that case, a district judge and then a three-judge appeals court panel both ruled that the federal government has primary authority in immigration law.

In that appeals court ruling, one judge dissented, and Judge Blackburn quoted heavily from Judge Carlos Bea’s opinion making the case that the federal government hasn’t precluded all state action.

In addition to its law enforcement provisions, the Alabama law requires all businesses to use E-Verify, a national database run by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that allows employers to check potential hires’ Social Security numbers to see if they are authorized to work.

“We’re very pleased to see that 85 percent of our law will go into effect, and we can finally begin dealing with the problem of illegal immigration in Alabama,” said Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard, a Republican. “The E-Verify provision is among the most meaningful and effective parts of this law. If we’re going to stop the flow of thousands of illegal immigrants into Alabama, we must shut off the magnet that is drawing them here.”

Federal law makes E-Verify voluntary for most businesses, but several states, led by Arizona, have made it mandatory. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court upheld Arizona’s law.

That issue is now back before Congress, where a House committee last week approved legislation that would make E-Verify mandatory across the country.

In a strange twist, Democrats, who usually argue for federal primacy in immigration, said the issue should be left to the states, while Republicans, who usually back state prerogatives, said the country needs a national standard so businesses don’t get confused.

When Mr. Bentley signed Alabama’s law earlier this year, it was seen as the toughest one in the nation, even surpassing Arizona’s law, which pioneered state crackdowns.

In a statement on behalf of 150 United Methodist pastors who signed a letter opposing the law, the Revs. Matt Lacey and R.G. Lyons said church leaders were “pleased to see some of the harsh and far-reaching elements of the law have been struck down.”

“We feel that many of these elements, written by members of the state House and Senate who campaign on Christianity, are not representative of the message of Christ, who welcomed the stranger despite country of origin or status,” they said, according to the Associated Press.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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