Hundreds of lawyers, activists, state lawmakers and journalists crowded into the Hugo L. Black Federal Courthouse in downtown Birmingham Wednesday for a daylong hearing on the future of Alabama's illegal immigration law that's set to go into effect next week.
Chief Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn heard arguments from lawyers representing the Obama administration, local clergy, the ACLU and Hispanic interest groups who oppose parts or all of the law, as well as from Attorney General Luther Strange and his staff who defended the law.
Department of Justice attorneys argued that several parts of the law, including allowing law enforcement officers to verify the immigration status of anyone they pull over, violate the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution.
William Orrick, arguing for the Obama administration, argued that the federal government "speaks with one voice on immigration issues," and says allowing this law to be implemented would "risk a patchwork of 50 states with 50 different immigration laws" that don't match up with the federal government's immigration policies.
Orrick cited an affidavit from Assistant Sec. of State Nicholas Burns who said allowing House Bill 56 to become law would endanger relations with foreign countries and could subject U.S. citizens living or traveling to other countries to the same kind of scrutiny.
Orrick says the state law tries to step on the toes of federal law enforcement and would also unfairly target U.S. citizens and immigrants who are in the country legally.
Attorneys for the ACLU and bishops of the Catholic, Methodist, and Episcopal churches of Alabama argued the law would make it illegal for churches to minister to, feed, counsel, or provide sacraments to illegal aliens, an argument Judge Blackburn said, "I totally disagree with."
Attorney General Strange, as well as two of his assistants, defended the law, saying striking it down would actually allow the federal government to expand its powers where it's not allowed, and would hamper the state's ability to govern itself and enforce its own laws. Strange said the perception that the law would make sacraments illegal "is wildly out of perspective and overblown."
Strange said provisions of the law that require schools to determine and report the immigration status of students is meant to help the state determine how big of an impact students of illegal aliens are having on the state's school system, not turn the schools into immigration enforcement agents.
Some of the most intense drama played out in the overflow courtroom where more than 100 spectators, most of whom oppose the law, were joined by state Sen. Scott Beason, one of the law's supporters. During a lunch break, several teens who oppose HB 56 approached Beason and began questioning why he supported the law and its provisions. Sen. Beason engaged them in a discussion before court resumed.
Judge Blackburn made clear she will not rule Wednesday and seemed to indicate she has different leanings on different sections of the law, making it unlikely she will completely uphold or strike down the law, but may rule on the bill piece by piece.
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