- Associated Press - Monday, August 20, 2012

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A federal appeals court ruled Monday that part of Alabama’s toughest-in-the-nation immigration law, which ordered public schools to check the citizenship status of new students, was unconstitutional, but it allowed police to ask suspicious people for citizenship documents.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the schools provision — the only one of its kind passed by states clamping down on immigration — wrongly singles out children who are in the country illegally. Because of that, the court said, the law violates the Constitution’s promise of equal protection under the law.

The court previously blocked enforcement of the school section during its review.

In decisions that followed the blueprint set by a Supreme Court decision on Arizona’s law on illegal immigration, the 11th Circuit said Alabama authorities could continue asking people for immigration documents during police encounters if officers have reason to believe someone is in the country illegally. Police also can take 48 hours to determine someone’s legal status if they do not have papers, and the state can ban illegal immigrants from completing business transactions with government, the court said. It made a similar ruling for Georgia.

But the judges sided with opponents of the law on other key points, including challenges to sections that made it illegal to harbor illegal immigrants; made it a crime for illegal immigrants to seek work; and made it a state crime for people in the country illegally not to have registration documents.

Omar Jadwat, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney involved in challenging similar laws in Alabama and Georgia, said the judges stuck down the schools provision “in pretty robust terms” and effectively opposed the sponsors’ stated idea of forcing illegal immigrants to “self-deport” by making their lives too difficult.

“The original idea behind the law, that these provisions would all work together to allow the states to aggressively identify and prosecute undocumented residents, has been shot down,” said Mr. Jadwat.

Republican Gov. Robert Bentley disagreed, saying the court upheld the “essence” of the law.

“The core of Alabama’s immigration law remains that if you live or work in the state, you should do so legally,” said Mr. Bentley, who signed the measure. “It is time now to move past court battles and focus on enforcement of Alabama’s law.”

State Attorney General Luther Strange said his office was still reviewing the decision, and added: “We are pleased that the court recognized the validity of our arguments and upheld several provisions of Alabama’s law.”

The appeals judges issued two rulings on the law, one in a challenge filed by the Obama administration and another in lawsuits filed by immigrant groups and other critics.

Alabama’s law is based on a similar one in Arizona, but it went further by requiring school officials to check the immigration status of new students enrolling in classes. While state officials argued that the provision is needed to assess the impact of immigrant children on public education, the judges said fear of the law “significantly deters undocumented children from enrolling in and attending school.”

School officials said many Hispanic parents quit sending their children to class immediately after Mr. Bentley signed the law, and some families left the state in fear. Local education systems have said many children returned to class, and some immigrant families moved back to Alabama after courts blocked many provisions in the law.

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