By BOB JOHNSON
MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Civil rights groups sued Friday in federal court to block Alabama's new law cracking down on illegal immigration, which supporters and opponents have called the strictest measure of its kind in the nation.
The lawsuit, filed in Huntsville, claims the new law will make criminals out of church workers who provide shelter to immigrants and even citizens who give their neighbors a ride to the store or to the doctor's office.
"This law interferes with the free exercise of religion. It criminalizes acts of love and hospitality," said Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries.
The lawsuit said the measure goes well beyond similar laws passed in Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia. Federal judges already have blocked all or parts of the laws in those states. It asks a judge to declare Alabama's law unconstitutional and prevent it from being enforced.
Alabama's law, which takes effect Sept. 1, allows police to arrest anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant if the person is stopped for some other reason. It also requires businesses to check the legal status of new workers; makes it a crime to knowingly give a ride to an illegal immigrant; and makes it a crime for landlords to knowingly rent to illegal immigrants.
The lawsuit said parents may not enroll their children in elementary and high schools because of the law's provision requiring schools to check the immigration status of students. Lawmakers have said that the intent of that requirement is to gauge how much the state is spending to educate illegal immigrants, and that the law does not prohibit illegal immigrants from attending public schools.
Matthew Webster was among the individuals who joined the lawsuit as plaintiffs. He and his wife, who live in the community of Alabaster south of Birmingham, are in the process of adopting two boys who are already in the country illegally. Webster, who described himself as politically conservative, said he feared the boys could face deportation under the new law before the adoption process is done and the boys are in the U.S. legally.
He said the boys "have the fear of being picked up" even walking to school.
"This criminalizes me and my wife for harboring and transporting these kids," he said.
The new law also could lead to racial profiling and conjures memories of Alabama's troubled segregationist past by making life more difficult for a targeted class of people, according to the lawsuit.
"Individuals who may be perceived as 'foreign' by state or local law enforcement agents will be in constant jeopardy of harassment and unlawfully prolonged detention by state law enforcement officers," the lawsuit said.
A sponsor of the bill, House Majority Leader Micky Hammon, a Republican from Decatur, said he is confident the courts will find that the law passes constitutional muster.
In a statement, Hammon called the organizations that filed the lawsuit, including the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, "liberal groups working to shield those who live here illegally."
"It is important to note that our law seeks to protect immigrants who reside here legally while affecting only those who break our laws with their simple presence. We cannot turn a blind eye toward those who thumb their noses at our borders and our laws," Hammon said.
Hammon and other supporters say the immigration law will ease unemployment in Alabama by opening up jobs currently held by illegal immigrants. More than 200,000 people in Alabama were unemployed in May, according to the most recent statistics available. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates there are about 120,000 illegal immigrants in the state, many of whom are believed to be working at farms, chicken processing plants and in construction.
But the legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Mary Bauer, said the new law could discourage overseas businesses from bringing new jobs to Alabama.
"It sends a message that people who look foreign are not welcome in our state," Bauer said. "If we are really talking about creating jobs, this is the worst form of political posturing by politicians."
Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard, a Republican, defended Alabama's law, saying "I'm not sure what part of the word 'illegal' some people don't understand."
"It isn't fair to the generations of immigrants who have come to this country legally for us to look the other way while others break the law and cheat the system," he said.
The lawsuit was filed by various organizations across northern Alabama that represent immigrant groups as well as individual immigrants who are listed under the pseudonyms John Doe and Jane Doe. The lawsuit names as defendants various state and local officials, including Republican Gov. Robert Bentley, Attorney General Luther Strange and state schools Superintendent Joe Morton.