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Alabama immigration law put on hold

 
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6:00 P.M. EDT August 29, 2011



Participants in a North Alabama Annual (regional) Conference Faithful Conversation about Alabama’s immigration law meet at Highlands United Methodist Church in Birmingham. A UMNS photo by Danette Clifton.
Participants in a North Alabama Annual (regional) Conference Faithful Conversation about Alabama’s immigration law meet at Highlands United Methodist Church in Birmingham. A UMNS photo by Danette Clifton.
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A federal judge on Aug. 29 put a temporary hold on Alabama’s new immigration enforcement law, winning cheers from United Methodist leaders who oppose the law.

The law, HB56, was scheduled to go into effect on Sept. 1.

In her order, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn said she placed the hold to give her sufficient time to rule on motions filed in three consolidated lawsuits to block the law. A coalition of civil rights groups, the U.S. Justice Department, and bishops of the United Methodist, Episcopal and Catholic churches acting as individuals filed the motions.

“In entering this order the court specifically notes that it is in no way addressing the merits of the motions,” Blackburn wrote.

The hold will remain in place until Sept. 29 at the latest, and Blackburn expects to publish her decision on the three pending motions by then.

“We think this is good news,” said Bishop William H. Willimon of the North Alabama Annual (regional) Conference, who joined the suit to stop the law. “It assumes that the judge has concerns about the law, and we look forward to further deliberations.”

At issue for Willimon and the other Christian leaders in the suit is the law’s provision that makes it a crime to knowingly “harbor” or “transport” immigrants who are not lawfully present in the United States.The bishops contend that the law makes it a potential crime to provide ministry to unauthorized immigrants, including administering the sacraments. Willimon stressed that he is involved in the suit as an individual, and no conference funds are going to legal expenses.

Blackburn at a hearing Aug. 24 expressed skepticism that the immigration law violates churches’ First Amendment rights, the Montgomery Advertiser reported. However, she also voiced doubts about whether parts of the law would pass constitutional muster.

According to the Montgomery Advertiser, she particularly challenged the requirement for school districts to collect information on the immigration status of newly enrolled students. She also questioned the provision that allows police officers to detain a person if they have “reasonable suspicion” the person is an unauthorized immigrant.



The Rev. Reagin Brown, a retired pastor from Fort Payne First United Methodist Church, talks during the June 25 march in Birmingham. A UMNS photo courtesy of Lyn Cosby.
The Rev. Reagin Brown, a retired pastor from Fort Payne First United Methodist Church, talks during the June 25 march in Birmingham. A UMNS photo courtesy of Lyn Cosby.
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“It’s clear to the judge that this law would have perhaps irreversible consequences for the affected people, the affected government agencies, the affected families and communities,” said Danny Upton, a United Methodist attorney and native Alabaman. “Because that potential for harm is so great, she’s just saying, ‘Let’s take a little bit of time so I can study this and I can make a legally sound and informed decision.’”

Upton is the national program attorney for the United Methodist ministry Justice for Our Neighbors, which provides free, professional legal services for immigrants at monthly clinics.

Both supporters and opponents of the Alabama law have called it the toughest in country. More than 150 United Methodist clergy in Alabama signed Willimon’s June 13 open letter sent to state government officials denouncing the law as unjust.

Similar state anti-illegal immigration laws also have faced federal court scrutiny. An Arizona federal district court and the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals have ruled that parts of Arizona’s 2010 anti-immigration law usurp federal immigration enforcement efforts. Federal judges have blocked part of laws in Indiana and Georgia. In addition, the law in Utah is now facing court challenges.

“I’m concerned about illegal immigration like anybody else,” Upton said, “But I am also concerned about illegal laws, and what Alabama has done here is to pass an illegal law.”

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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