ATLANTA - Civil liberties groups on Thursday filed a lawsuit seeking to block Georgia from enforcing a law that cracks down on illegal immigration, saying it violates state and federal law.
The groups claim they "face an imminent threat of harm" if the law is enforced. They are asking a federal judge to declare the law unconstitutional and to block state authorities from enforcing it. The groups also plan to ask for a preliminary injunction to stop the law from going into effect.
A coalition of local and national groups filed the complaint in federal court in Atlanta. The suit seeks class-action status and names as defendants Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and several other state officials.
The governor signed the law in May.
"The Georgia General Assembly carefully vetted a piece of legislation that ensured a constitutional product," Deal spokeswoman Stephanie Mayfield said in an email.
State Attorney General Sam Olens, who is named as a defendant, said he plans to defend the law in court.
"I believe the plaintiffs' claims are meritless and baseless," he said. "We will vigorously defend this lawsuit with the full resources of the Attorney General's office."
Most parts of the law are set to take effect July 1.
The measure authorizes law enforcement to check the immigration status of a suspect who cannot provide identification and to detain and hand over to federal authorities anyone found to be in the country illegally. It also penalizes people who, during the commission of another crime, knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants and makes it a felony to present false documents or information when applying for a job.
The law "usurps powers constitutionally vested in the federal government exclusively" and "attempts to legislate in the fields occupied by the federal government," which is a violation of the Constitution's Supremacy Clause, the lawsuit alleges.
The law also violates other constitutional rights - including the prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to equal protection and the right to due process - the suit says.
"This law undermines our core American values of fairness and equality," said Mary Bauer of the Southern Poverty Law Center. "By perpetuating the hate rhetoric that has become commonplace among elected officials this law threatens citizens and non-citizens alike by encouraging racial profiling. Sadly, too, it places Georgia on the wrong side of history."
Immigrant outreach groups and labor unions say they will be harmed and their missions will be compromised if the new law takes effect because they may risk violating the law by helping people who are in the country illegally.
Other plaintiffs include illegal immigrants who live in Georgia and say they will be afraid to drive or leave their homes if the law takes effect because they will fear encounters with law enforcement officers.
Paul Bridges, a plaintiff, is a Republican and the mayor of Uvalda, a town of about 600 people in the South Georgia region where Vidalia onions are grown. Some farmers have told him that immigrant workers didn't show up to pick onions this spring because they feared the new law. That hurts farmers and also businesses in the area where migrant laborers spend their money, he said.
"The business part of the Republican Party fell through the cracks on this bill," he said.
He regularly drives immigrants in the community to doctor appointments, court appearances and other places, and said he worries he could get in trouble under the new law for providing help to his friends, some of whom are in the country illegally.
The bill's author, state Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, said he wasn't surprised to hear about the lawsuit.
"We've expected the ACLU and other groups to file suit against the law since the first day we started working on it," he said. "We're confident this law is constitutional, and we're going to be vindicated in the courts."
Georgia's law has some provisions that echo those in a law enacted last year in Arizona and is also very similar to another enacted this year in Utah.
A federal judge blocked the most controversial parts of Arizona's law last year after the Justice Department sued, arguing the law intrudes on the federal government's exclusive powers to regulate immigration. A federal appeals court judge upheld the decision and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has said she plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The ACLU and other civil liberties groups filed a complaint claiming that the Utah law was an unconstitutional burden to legal immigrants and too much like portions of Arizona's immigration law. A federal judge last month temporarily blocked that law, citing similarities to the most controversial parts of Arizona's law. A hearing is set for mid-July to determine if the law can go into effect.
The Georgia lawsuit has been assigned to federal Judge Thomas Thrash, a Clinton appointee.
Another section of the Georgia law set to be phased in starting in January will require many businesses to check the immigration status of new hires. An Arizona law with the same requirement was upheld last week by the U.S. Supreme Court. The lawsuit filed Thursday does not take issue with that part of the Georgia law.