Georgia, Alabama illegal immigration laws headed to appeals court Thursday

The legal battle over how far states can go in combating illegal immigration will resume Thursday when a federal appeals court in Atlanta hears arguments over Georgia's and Alabama’s enforcement laws.

Officials from both those states say they needed to adopt the laws to protect jobs and taxpayer-funded resources because the federal government has not done enough to keep illegal immigrants out of the country.

Civil and immigrant rights groups say the statutes are divisive and unconstitutional, and that they interfere with the federal government’s authority to regulate immigration and manage foreign relations.

Two key parts of Georgia’s law will be at stake Thursday when a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals holds its hearing.

One of those provisions would authorize state and local police to investigate the immigration status of suspects they believe have committed state or federal crimes and who cannot produce identification, such as a driver's license, or provide other information that could help police identify them. That provision would also empower police to detain people who are determined to be in the country illegally and take them to jail.

The other provision would punish people who knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants while committing another crime. People convicted of these crimes could face fines and prison time.

In June, a lower court temporarily put these provisions on hold following a court challenge brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil and immigrant rights groups. Georgia is appealing that court’s decision Thursday.

The appeals court will also hear arguments concerning parts of Alabama’s immigration law, including one provision that is similar to Georgia’s law. Unlike Georgia’s law, however, Alabama’s statute requires police to investigate the immigration status of suspects under certain conditions and when they are believed to be in the country illegally. Alabama’s law also requires police to transfer illegal immigrants to federal authorities if those authorities so request.

The court will also weigh an Alabama law that would require public school officials to determine the immigration status of their students.

The Obama administration is suing to block those laws. And in October, the appeals court temporarily put on hold the provision dealing with public schools. The court, however, refused to halt the provision that would require police to do immigration status checks.

Georgia officials have said in legal briefs that the state and Atlanta-area counties are spending tens of millions of dollars incarcerating illegal immigrants and providing them with Medicaid benefits at a time of lean budgets.

The offices of the Alabama and Georgia attorneys general -- which are preparing to defend their state’s laws Thursday -- declined to comment. So did the U.S. Justice Department.

The author of Georgia’s law -- state Rep. Matt Ramsey of R-Peachtree City -- did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday. But the sponsor of Alabama’s statute predicted his state’s law will “remain largely intact” after the court proceedings are over.

“When crafting this statute, we did our due diligence to ensure its provisions met constitutional muster,” House Majority Leader Micky Hammon, a Republican, said in a prepared statement.

“It is my hope that Alabama's law, and others like it, will spur Congress to do what we have simply asked all along -- address the flood of illegal immigrants on the federal level so we are not forced to do it on the state level.”

Critics say both Georgia's and Alabama’s statutes run afoul of the Constitution and are terrifying immigrant communities.

“Alabama and Georgia just cannot figure out who is here lawfully and who is here unlawfully,” said Cecillia Wang, director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project.

“So as they are trying to impose these draconian penalties on people that the states think are undocumented immigrants, they are going to be catching U.S. citizens and lawfully present immigrants in the dragnet. And that is a very serious constitutional problem.”

The Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights -- one of the groups fighting Georgia’s law -- is planning to hold a rally against the statute outside the appeals court Thursday morning.

The appeals court is not expected to issue a ruling Thursday but sometime in the coming weeks or months. One legal expert speculated the appeals court will seek to issue a ruling before the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to take up a similar law in Arizona next month. Parts of Georgia's and Alabama’s laws are patterned after Arizona’s measure.

Last year, the appeals court rejected a request from Georgia and Alabama to stay the legal arguments over their laws pending a U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Arizona statute. The court did not give a reason in the order it issued to reject the stay.

“A main reason for the 11th Circuit to do this is because they want to have their views in front of the [Supreme] Court,” said Gabriel Chin, who writes about immigration law and teaches law at the University of California, Davis.

“That is one of the things the Supreme Court uses the lower courts to do -- which is to help develop a range of views.”

Under that scenario, Chin said, the Supreme Court would look closely at the appeals court’s decision before it issues its own ruling.

“What the 11th Circuit does is going to be very important,” he said. “As a practical matter -- particularly in this case -- the Supreme Court is going to pay close attention to what the 11th Circuit Court rules.”

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