BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- A federal judge temporarily blocked enforcement of Alabama's new law cracking down on illegal immigration, ruling Monday that she needed more time to decide whether the law opposed by the Obama administration, church leaders and immigrant-rights groups is constitutional.
The brief order by U.S. District Judge Sharon L. Blackburn means the law – which opponents and supporters alike have called the toughest in the nation – won't take effect as scheduled on Thursday. The ruling was cheered both by Republican leaders who were pleased the judge didn't gut the law and by opponents who compare it to old Jim Crow-era statutes against racial integration.
Blackburn didn't address whether the law is constitutional, and she could still let all or parts of the law take effect later. Instead, she said she needed more time to consider lawsuits filed by the Justice Department, private groups and individuals that claim the state is overstepping its bounds.
The judge said she will issue a longer ruling by Sept. 28, and her temporary order will remain in effect until the day after. She heard arguments from the Justice Department and others during a daylong hearing last week.
Similar laws have been passed in Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia. Federal judges already have blocked all or parts of the laws in those states.
Among other things, the law would require schools to verify the citizenship status of students, but it wouldn't prevent illegal immigrants from attending public schools.
The law also would make it a crime to knowingly assist an illegal immigrant by providing them a ride, a job, a place to live or most anything else – a section that church leaders fear would hamper public assistance ministries. It also would allow police to jail suspected illegal immigrants during traffic stops.
Finding a way to curtail public spending that benefits illegal immigrants has been a pet project of Alabama conservatives for years. Census figures released earlier this year show the state's Hispanic population more than doubled over a decade to 185,602 last year, and supporters of the law contend many of them are in the country illegally.
Isabel Rubio, executive director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, which is among the groups that sued over the law, hopes Blackburn will block it entirely but was happy with the temporary reprieve.
"We are pleased that Judge Blackburn is taking more time to study the case," she said.
Republican Gov. Robert Bentley said he would continue to defend the law, and GOP leaders in the House and Senate praised Blackburn – a Republican appointee – for taking time to fully consider the law.
"We must remember that today's ruling is simply the first round in what promises to be a long judicial fight over Alabama's right to protect its borders," said House Majority Leader Micky Hammon of Decatur. "To put it in sports terms, it is the first half-inning of the first game of a seven-game World Series."
While the Obama administration contends the state law conflicts with federal immigration law, state Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, contends the federal government isn't doing its job enforcing immigration laws. Beason said that he spent years researching immigration law to help write the 70-plus page law, and that it's unrealistic to expect a judge to go through it all in a few days.
"You just can't do that," he said.