Churches lose fight over Alabama immigration law

September 29, 2011

A federal judge jolted the national immigration debate by approving
most parts of Alabama's aggressive immigration law which some religious
leaders  have called the "meanest" in the nation.

In a ruling
September 28 that was hailed by many state officials, U.S. District
Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn refused to block much of Alabama's
far-reaching immigration law from going into effect.

Blackburn's
decision came after three separate challenges were filed by the U.S.
Department of Justice; Catholic, Epis­copal and United Methodist
bishops; and a coalition of civil rights groups, unions and individuals
who said they would be harmed by the law. The Justice Depart­ment argued
that immigration law en­forcement rests with the federal government and
that states could not set up their own systems.

The U.S. judge disagreed, saying Alabama's efforts mirrored the federal government's or were complementary.

"Today
is a dark day for Alabama," said Mary Bauer, legal director for the
Southern Poverty Law Center. "This decision not only places Alabama on
the wrong side of history but also demonstrates that the rights and
freedoms so fundamental to our nation and its history can be manipulated
by hate and political agendas—at least for a time."

United
Methodist Bishop William Willimon, who had crusaded against the law,
continues to oppose it but said it was "good news" that Blackburn struck
down a provision that made it illegal to harbor or transport an
undocumented immigrant. Willimon and other religious leaders said the
provision would have hampered churches' ability to minister to all,
regardless of immigration status.

"We will continue to provide
food, shelter, transportation, housing and the church's sacraments to
all of God's people, regardless of race, class, or citizenship status,"
he said in a statement.

Similar but less far-reaching laws in
Arizona, Georgia, Indiana and Utah have been temporarily blocked by
federal courts, but Blackburn found that Alabama's laws were generally
consistent with the intent of Congress, which gave the states a
supporting role in immigration law enforcement.

She also pointedly
disagreed with court rulings that blocked Arizona's immigration law on
the grounds that immigration law enforcement is the unique
responsibility of the federal government.

The judge refused to
block a portion of the law that authorizes police to conduct immigration
checks during routine traffic stops. She also left in place a new
system that requires public schools to check students' immigration
status upon enrollment.

Blackburn blocked parts of the law that
bar illegal immigrants from seeking work, as well as a new traffic
penalty for motorists who stop in the roadway to hire day laborers. The
judge's decision emphasized that blocking a law before it is implemented
is a drastic step that requires clear evidence that the Constitution
and will of Congress would be violated.

Alabama Governor Robert
Bentley said the law, even without sections that Blackburn blocked, is
the "strongest" immigration law in the country. But he also promised to
fight to see all sections take effect. "With those parts that were
upheld, we have the strongest immigration law in this country," he
said.  —RNS