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