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Critics of tough Alabama immigration law appeal

By Peggy Gargis and Verna Gates

BIRMINGHAM, Ala (Reuters) - A coalition of civil rights and immigrant advocacy groups filed an appeal on Thursday of a federal judge's ruling that let stand much of Alabama's tough new immigration law.

The groups, along with President Barack Obama's administration and church leaders, have sought to block what is widely seen as the toughest state crackdown on illegal immigration.

Chief U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn ruled on Wednesday that Alabama could begin requiring public schools to determine the legal residency of children.

She also gave the green light for police to detain people suspected of being in the United States illegally if they cannot produce proper documentation when stopped for any reason.

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley and fellow Republican lawmakers hailed the judge's decision as a major win in their efforts to curb illegal immigration in their state. Federal judges have previously blocked key parts of other immigration laws passed in Georgia, Arizona, Utah and Indiana.

The Obama administration argues that the U.S. Constitution bars states from adopting immigration measures that conflict with federal laws.

But conservatives complain that the federal government has failed to sufficiently stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the country, forcing states to take action to protect their borders and jobs.

The plaintiffs group in the appeal, led by the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, also filed an emergency motion on Thursday seeking to keep some disputed parts of the law from taking effect pending a review by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

LEGAL FIGHT CONTINUES

The latest legal challenge comes as no surprise. Supporters of the law also have vowed to continue the court fight, with the aim of getting the entire law in effect.

Blackburn temporarily barred the state from making it a crime to knowingly transport or harbor an illegal immigrant or prohibiting illegal immigrants from attending its public colleges.

"The overwhelming majority of people in this state are supportive of this law," said Republican state Representative Jim McClendon, a co-sponsor of the measure.

"The opponents lost hands-down in the legislative process, so now, they're turning to the court system to see if they can find somebody who sympathizes with their position."

University of Alabama constitutional law professor Bryan Fair said he thinks opponents have a shot at getting some of the more controversial provisions of the law overturned by a higher court, specifically those involving schools and police.

"I think those provisions invite racial profiling, and I think racial profiling violates the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment," Fair told Reuters.

Educators and law enforcement officials in the state were among those waiting for guidance on how to proceed as the court battle plays out.

"At this point we do not know if that will involve a stay of the law from going into effect before the appeal is heard," said Randy Christian, chief deputy of the Jefferson County Sheriff Department.

"We also have to get some answers on how we actually enforce it and how we can do so without involving racial profiling."

Alabama Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan said a statewide web seminar series would be held on October 14 to help instruct farmers on how to comply with the new law.

The measure already has had an impact on the state's agribusiness, with McMillan and others telling of crops rotting in fields as a result of day laborers leaving the state ahead of the law taking effect.

"This law contains many provisions with stiff fines and penalties," McMillan said in a statement. "It is critical for farmers and agribusinesses to understand fully how this law applies to them."

(Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Greg McCune)

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