ATLANTA — Civil liberties groups on Thursday filed a lawsuit seeking to block a Georgia 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 new law is enforced. They are asking a federal judge to declare the law unconstitutional and to block state authorities from enforcing it.
A coalition of local and national groups filed the complaint in federal court in Atlanta, said Azadeh Shahshahani, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. The suit seeks class-action status and names as defendants Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and several other state officials.
The governor signed the law last month.
"The Georgia General Assembly carefully vetted a piece of legislation that ensured a constitutional product," Deal spokeswoman Stephanie Mayfield said in an email. "When filed, the lawsuit will be handled by the attorney general's office, and the governor fully expects a ruling in the state of Georgia's favor."
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 said.
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.
The state's attorney general, as well as the heads of the agencies that would be responsible for enforcing various parts of the law, were also named as defendants.
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.
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.