WASHINGTON - The Obama administration Monday sued to block enforcement of Alabama's new immigration law, widely considered to be the toughest measure in the United States to try to crack down on illegal immigrants.
The law, known as H.B. 56, was signed by Republican Governor Robert Bentley in June and is due to take effect on Sept. 1. Civil rights groups brought a separate lawsuit challenging the law about a month ago.
"If allowed to go into effect, H.B. 56's enforcement scheme will conflict with and undermine the federal government's careful balance of immigration enforcement priorities and objectives," administration lawyers said.
"The scheme will cause the detention and harassment of authorized visitors, immigrants, and citizens who do not have or carry identification documents specified by the statute, or who otherwise will be swept into the ambit of H.B. 56's enforcement-at-all-costs approach," according to the lawsuit filed in federal court in Alabama.
The administration argued that federal law preempted the state from adopting its own immigration regime and would interfere with the federal immigration system. There are an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
Conservatives have complained that the Obama administration has failed to sufficiently stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the country. Attempts to overhaul federal immigration policy have gone nowhere in the U.S. Congress.
Besides Alabama, Georgia, Arizona, Utah and Indiana are defending new immigration laws in federal court. The Obama administration successfully sued to block Arizona's tough law last year.
"Today's action makes clear that setting immigration policy and enforcing immigration laws is a national responsibility that cannot be addressed through a patchwork of state immigration laws," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.
Alabama's law requires public schools to determine, by reviewing birth certificates or sworn affidavits, the legal residency status of students upon enrollment.
Police must also detain someone they suspect of being in the United States illegally if the person cannot produce proper documentation when stopped for any reason. That is similar to the Arizona law blocked by the courts from taking effect.
The Alabama law also would be a crime to knowingly transport or harbor someone who is in the country illegally.
The law also imposes penalties on businesses that knowingly employ someone without legal resident status, and a company's business license could be suspended or revoked. A similar Arizona law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in May.
The Alabama law also requires businesses to use a database called E-Verify to confirm the immigration status of new employees.
© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.