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How to handle illegal immigration has been a big topic on the presidential campaign trail and a big debate in many states. Alabama has what's considered to be the toughest law against illegal immigration in the country, and much of that law takes effect today. A Birmingham federal judge refused to block some of the most stringent provisions in the state's crackdown.
NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn is leaving the law intact, save for a few provisions. That means, among other things, it's now a crime to be illegally present in the State of Alabama. The U.S. Justice Department, civil rights groups, and some Alabama churches had sued to stop the law from taking effect.
Republican Governor Robert Bentley called the ruling a victory for Alabama.
ROBERT BENTLEY: With those parts that were upheld, we have the strongest immigration law in this country.
ELLIOTT: Controversial provisions that remain include a requirement that public schools document the immigration status of students and their parents. Local law enforcement must verify the status of suspects and jail those without proper documents. And it's against the law to enter into any kind of a contract with an illegal immigrant.
Bentley says states are now the forefront for immigration enforcement.
BENTLEY: It would not have been necessary to address this problem if the federal government would've done its job and enforced the laws dealing with this problem.
MARY BAUER: This is ? this is a pretty dark day for Alabama.
ELLIOTT: Mary Bauer is legal director with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, one of several civil rights groups that claimed the law is unconstitutional.
BAUER: I think there are real concerns about racial profiling. I think, you know, in the next few days we may see people denied such basic services as water. We'll see kids who don't enroll in school. The real live human toll of this ruling will be disastrous.
ELLIOTT: Blackburn did block several sections of the new law, including ones prohibiting illegal immigrants from seeking work or enrolling in public colleges. She also stopped the state from making it a crime to harbor, transport or shield undocumented residents. That was the provision some churches had challenged.
Bishop Will Willimon leads the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.
WILL WILLIMON: We think that her decision protects our churches and their ministries from prosecution under this overreaching and severe law.
ELLIOTT: Some question why this has become such a hot issue in Alabama, a state with about 130,000 illegal immigrants out of the total population of 4.7 million people.
When Republicans took over the state house in Montgomery last year, cracking down on illegal immigration was a key campaign promise, and they've delivered. Federal courts have already blocked parts of similar laws in Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia.
Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard says some of those rulings helped lawmakers carefully craft their legislation.
MIKE HUBBARD: What's unfortunate is that we had to do this because the federal government is refusing to enforce its own laws. And a lot of what we're doing is to protect our borders as best we can. But we're also sending a very strong message to the federal government: fixed the problem.
ELLIOTT: University of Alabama constitutional law Professor Paul Horwitz says yesterday's federal court ruling brings a new interpretation of what amounts to interference with federal rules.
PAUL HORWITZ: It's not going to hold that state law is pre-empted by federal law simply because it exists, simply because there is this massive, complicated federal immigration scheme in place.
ELLIOTT: Horowitz says ultimately the Supreme Court will decide if states can continue experimenting with immigration enforcement.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.