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Georgia, Ala. Immigration Laws Challenged In Court


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Federal courts are nearing final judgment on some of the nation's toughest immigration laws.

Next month, the Supreme Court hears a challenge to the law in Arizona. Laws in two other states are now before a federal appeals court in Atlanta, as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: When a newly-Republican controlled Alabama legislature passed a wide-ranging immigration bill last year, it was considered the toughest in the country. At the time, House sponsor Micky Hammon told NPR the law's intent was clear.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE MICKY HAMMON: We are trying to discourage illegal immigrants from coming to the state of Alabama and prevent those that are already here from putting down roots.

ELLIOTT: The law encouraged so-called self-deportation by making it a crime to be illegally present in the state, and criminalizing all sorts of interactions with undocumented residents. It's illegal to hire, rent to, transport, house or enter into a contract with an illegal immigrant. Law enforcement can jail anyone without documentation of citizenship or legal residence. And public schools must keep track of the immigration status of students and their parents.

Civil rights groups, churches and the Obama administration sued, arguing the immigration crackdown was unconstitutional. A federal judge struck down some provisions, but left the law largely intact. Today, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is hearing oral arguments on the Alabama law and a similar one in Georgia.

CECILLIA WANG: What's at stake in these two cases is basically the freedom of everyone to go about their lawful business without being subject to living in a police state.

ELLIOTT: Cecillia Wang is director of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project, one of the groups arguing before the appeals court today.

WANG: Both of these laws give the state and local police officers broad-ranging powers to suspect people of being undocumented immigrants and to demand people's papers in ordinary encounters like traffic stops. This is really counter to our fundamental American notions of living in a free society.

ELLIOTT: But states argue they're left to police their borders because the federal government failed to stop illegal immigration.

Republican State Senator Scott Beason of Alabama is a co-sponsor of the legislation.

STATE SENATOR SCOTT BEASON: I think the states should be able to protect their own citizens and protect their sovereignty if the federal government won't do that.

ELLIOTT: Beason says the Alabama law was crafted to compliment national immigration policy, not overstep federal authority. He's looking to the appeals court to further delineate just what those bounds are.

BEASON: It will begin to clarify what states can do. And we were very, very careful to play on the field that we're allowed to play on. And it's a partnership with the federal government and the states, which is really the way the country's supposed to be. We're just trying to help do what they apparently are not able to do.

ELLIOTT: Justice Department officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but last month in Atlanta, Assistant Attorney General Tony West laid out the government's case.

ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL TONY WEST: We argue that each of these immigration laws is constitutionally preempted, because it is the federal government and not the states that is vested with the primary authority and the primary responsibility in immigration matters.

ELLIOTT: West says the state statutes interfere with federal immigration enforcement.

WEST: A piecemeal, state-by-state approach that creates a patchwork of conflicting inconsistent immigration laws, that only creates more problems that it solves.

ELLIOTT: The question is: Can the states step into what they perceive as a federal void when it comes to immigration enforcement, says Bryan Fair, a constitutional law professor at the University of Alabama.

BRYAN FAIR: What these cases will present for the court - at least on the federalism side - is a chance to clarify the mapping of each sphere, the federal sphere and the state sphere in immigration cases.

ELLIOTT: Fair says the 11th Circuit today - and the Supreme Court on Arizona's law next month - will weigh the age-old question of the proper balance of power between states and the central government. Their rulings could open the door for states to have a broader role in immigration matters.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.