Alabama officials Tuesday criticized a Justice Department lawsuit challenging the state’s tough new immigration law, arguing that the federal government’s failure to enforce its own immigration statutes had forced the states to do so.
Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard, a Republican, said the legislation — signed into law in June by Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley — will survive any court challenge. A federal judge in Phoenix has blocked implementation of an Arizona immigration law for more than a year after a similar challenge from the Obama administration in 2010.
“Make no mistake, this lawsuit will not undo Alabama’s immigration law. If the court finds problems with parts of the law, tweaks can be made,” Mr. Hubbard said. “But Alabama is not going to be a sanctuary state for illegal immigrants. Alabama will have a strict immigration law and we will enforce it.”
Alabama State Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said the federal government has “looked the other way” on the issue of immigration law enforcement, allowing Alabama’s illegal immigrant population to increase by nearly 400 percent over the past decade.
“With almost one out of every 10 Alabamians looking for a job, we need to make sure that legal Alabama residents are not being passed over for employment in lieu of those who are here illegally,” Mr. Marsh said.
The Justice Department lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Birmingham, restated the Obama administration’s strongly held view that setting immigration policy and enforcing immigration law was a federal responsibility. The department argued that the Alabama law, known as H.B. 56, “undermines the federal governments careful balance of immigration enforcement priorities and objectives.”
The brief makes clear that, while the federal government values state assistance and cooperation, a state cannot set its own immigration policy, much less pass laws that conflict with federal enforcement of immigration laws.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the problems of immigration law enforcement cannot be addressed through a “patchwork” of state laws.
“To the extent we find state laws that interfere with the federal governments enforcement of immigration law, we are prepared to bring suit, as we did in Arizona,” he said.
A federal judge is scheduled to hear arguments in the suit Aug. 24.
Both supporters and critics of Alabama’s law have described it as the toughest in the nation. It requires public schools to determine the immigration status of students; orders police to detain those they suspect of being in the country illegally when stopped for any reason; and makes it a crime to knowingly transport or harbor someone illegally in the country.
The law, scheduled to go into effect Sept. 1, also imposes penalties on businesses that knowingly employ someone without legal resident status.
The Alabama law was authored by House GOP Majority Leader Micky Hammon, who told reporters after the lawsuit was filed that the Obama administration and federal officials have “turned a blind eye toward the immigration issue and refuse to fulfill their constitutional duty to enforce laws already on the books.
“Now, they want to block our efforts to secure Alabamas borders and prevent our jobs and taxpayer dollars from disappearing into the abyss that illegal immigration causes,” he said.
The Justice Department argued that the Alabama law could result in the “harassment and detention of foreign visitors, legal immigrants and even U.S. citizens who may not be able to readily prove their lawful status.” In addition, the department said, it will place “significant burdens on federal agencies, diverting their resources away from dangerous criminal aliens and other high-priority targets.”
The Washington-based Service Employees International Union, one of the nation’s largest labor unions, applauded the lawsuit and called on Congress to begin working on a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
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