MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The Obama administration is challenging a new Alabama immigration law that would let police detain people stopped for traffic offenses who are suspected of being in the country illegally, a law described as one of the toughest of its kind nationwide.
The Justice Department filed a complaint Monday in federal court in Birmingham stating that the Alabama law conflicts with federal law and undermines federal immigration priorities. The federal lawsuit argues that the state law also expands the opportunities for Alabama police to push immigrants toward incarceration for various new immigration crimes.
The Alabama law, set to take effect Sept. 1, also makes it a crime to knowingly give a ride or provide shelter to an illegal immigrant. It also requires schools to report the immigration status of students. Alabama employers also would now be required to use a federal system called E-Verify to determine if new workers are in the country legally.
The Justice Department, in its filing, says a state cannot set its own immigration policy and cannot pass laws that conflict with federal immigration laws.
"To put it in terms we relate to here in Alabama, you can only have one quarterback in a football game. In immigration, the federal government is the quarterback," said Joyce Vance, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.
Already the law is facing mounting opposition.
On Monday, a coalition of religious leaders in Alabama filed suit, challenging the law. The lawsuit by Roman Catholic, United Methodist and Episcopal bishops says the new law "makes it a crime to follow God's command to be Good Samaritans."
Last month, a coalition of civil rights and immigrant rights groups also filed suit, seeking to bar the law from taking effect. U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn in Birmingham has scheduled a hearing for Aug. 24 on the request for her to stop it from being put in force Sept. 1.
The sponsor of the Alabama law, Republican state Rep. Micky Hammon, defended it Monday.
"The Obama administration and the federal bureaucrats 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 Alabama's borders and prevent our jobs and taxpayer dollars from disappearing into the abyss that illegal immigration causes," Hammon said.
"Allowing hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to run unchecked under the radar threatens our homeland security and insults those who come here legally," he added.
Among its provisions, the new law requires the public schools to determine the immigration status of its students and whether they qualify for classes in English as a second language. Opponents contend that provision could have a chilling effect by — for instance — potentially discouraging parents in the U.S. illegally from enrolling children even if those youngsters are citizens. Officials counter that the state's tough new immigration law won't prohibit any child — illegal immigrant or not — from enrolling in Alabama's public schools.
In a Department of Justice statement, Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said immigration enforcement is the job of the federal government.
"Legislation like this diverts critical law enforcement resources from the most serious threats to public safety," Napolitano said.
The Justice Department's complaint quoted Birmingham police chief A.C. Roper as saying the law would divert scarce resources from local policing priorities to immigration enforcement.
Last year, the department obtained a preliminary injunction against an Arizona immigration law.
Cecillia Wang, director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, said she welcomes the lawsuit by the Justice Department and by the church groups. As one of the attorneys in the civil rights lawsuits, she said the various legal challenges highlight the problems with the law passed in June by Alabama's Legislature.
"It is a law that really tramples on civil rights, civil liberties and religious freedoms in the state of Alabama," Wang said.
But others disagree.
Todd Stacy, a spokesman for Alabama Republican House Speaker Mike Hubbard, said it was disappointing that the federal government has not enforced the law on immigration.
"If the federal government wants to help it should do its job, close the border and enact serious immigration reform," Stacy said.
Associated Press writers Ted Yost in Washington and Jim Van Anglin in Montgomery contributed to this report.