ATLANTA (AP) - The federal government asked an appeals court Friday to halt the Alabama immigration law considered by many the toughest in the U.S., saying it could have dire diplomatic consequences abroad, invites discrimination and merely forces illegal immigrants into neighboring states.
The motion, filed in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, claimed Alabama's new law is "highly likely to expose persons lawfully in the United States, including school children, to new difficulties in routine dealings."
A federal judge earlier upheld two key provisions in the law that allow authorities to question people suspected of being in the country illegally and hold them without bond, and let officials check the immigration status of students in public schools.
Those measures have already taken effect and will remain in effect while the appeals court weighs the Justice Department's request. The provisions help make the Alabama law stricter than similar laws passed in Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia. Federal judges in those states have blocked all or parts of those measures.
Immigration became a hot issue in Alabama over the past decade as the state's Hispanic population grew by 145 percent to about 185,600. While the group still represents only about 4 percent of the population, some counties in north Alabama have large Spanish-speaking communities and schools where most of the students are Hispanic.
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 it, saying it was vital to protect the jobs of legal residents.
The measure has already had an immediate impact.
Education officials say scores of immigrant families have withdrawn their children from classes or kept them home from school. Some towns and urban areas have also reported a sudden exodus of Hispanics, some of whom told officials they planned to leave the state to avoid trouble with the law.
The appeal said parts of the new law conflict with federal guidelines. Requiring police officers to report people who are suspected of being in the country illegally, it said, "unnecessarily diverts resources from federal enforcement priorities and precludes state and local officials from working in true cooperation with federal officials."
It also said the attempt to drive illegal immigrants "off the grid" would negatively impact diplomatic relations with foreign countries and disrupt immigration policy across the nation.
"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," it said.