ATLANTA — A federal appeals court on Friday blocked a key part of Alabama's law that requires schools to check the immigration status of students, temporarily weakening what was considered the toughest immigration law in the nation.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also blocked a part of the law that allows authorities to charge immigrants who do not carry documents proving their legal status. The three-judge panel let stand a provision that allows police to detain immigrants that are suspected of being in the country illegally.
A final decision on the law won't be made for months to allow time for more arguments.
Linton Joaquin of the National Immigration Law Center called the decision a "partial victory."
"I think that certainly it's a better situation today for the people of Alabama today than it was yesterday," said Omar Jadwat, an attorney for the ACLU, which challenged the law along with the Obama administration. "Obviously we remain concerned about the remainder of the provisions, and we remain confident that we will eventually get the whole scheme blocked."
Since a federal judge upheld much of the law in late September, many frightened Hispanics have been driven away from Alabama, fearing they could be arrested or targeted by police. Construction workers, landscapers and field hands have stopped showing up for work, and large numbers of Hispanic students have been absent from public schools.
To cope with the labor shortage, Alabama agriculture commissioner John McMillan at one point suggested farmers should consider hiring inmates in the state's work-release program.
It's not clear exactly how many Hispanics have fled the state. Earlier this week, many skipped work to protest the law, shuttering or scaling back operations at chicken plants, Mexican restaurants and other businesses.
Immigration has become a hot-button issue in Alabama over the past decade as the Hispanic population has grown by 145 percent to about 185,600 people, most of them of Mexican origin. The Hispanic population represents about 4 percent of the state's 4.7 million people, but some counties in north Alabama have large Spanish-speaking communities and schools where most of the students are Hispanic.
Requiring school officials to check the immigration status of students in public schools helped make the Alabama law stricter than similar measures enacted in Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia. Federal judges in those states have blocked all or parts of those laws.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer earlier this year asked the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve the legal fight over her state's tough immigration law.
The Justice Department called the Alabama law a "sweeping new state regime" and urged the appeals court to forbid states from creating a patchwork of immigration policies. The agency also said the law could strain diplomatic relations with Latin American countries, who have warned the law could impact millions of workers, tourists and students in the U.S.
The law, it said, turns illegal immigrants into a "unique class who cannot lawfully obtain housing, enforce a contract, or send their children to school without fear that enrollment will be used as a tool to seek to detain and remove them and their family members."
"Other states and their citizens are poorly served by the Alabama policy, which seeks to drive aliens from Alabama rather than achieve cooperation with the federal government to resolve a national problem," the attorneys have said in court documents.
Thomas Perez, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, said Friday before the ruling that a team of attorneys is in Alabama trying to determine whether the law was leading to civil rights violations. The school requirement was an area of particular worry, and the federal government is trying to determine how many absentees and withdrawals might be linked to the law, Perez said.
"We're hearing a number of reports about increases in bullying that we're studying," he said after a meeting with leaders and advocates for the Hispanic community.
Alabama Republicans have long sought to clamp down on illegal immigration and passed the law earlier this year after gaining control of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley signed the measure, saying it was crucial to protect the jobs of legal residents amid the tough economy and high unemployment.
Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard said the state was forced to act because the federal government ignored its responsibility to enforce immigration law.
"In Alabama we believe in obedience to law because it promotes fairness and protects the rights of everybody," said Hubbard, a Republican. "That's why instead of just talking about it, we took action to ensure nobody is allowed to cheat the system and ignore our laws."
Follow Bluestein at http://www.twitter.com/bluestein . Associated Press reporters Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala. and Kate Brumback in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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