Several provisions of a harsh Alabama immigration law were blocked by a federal appeals court on Friday, ending their enforcement until the court can determine whether the law violates the Constitution.
The law, H.B. 56, allows police and some government officials to demand proof of legal status if they have "reasonable suspicion" a person may be in the country illegally. While Alabama police will still be able to detain people they determine are undocumented immigrants, the state will no longer require officials to check the legal status of public school students or mandate that undocumented immigrants carry an "alien registration card."
The decision came after a lawsuit was brought by the Justice Department, contending that the law pre-empted federal immigration law and could lead to racial profiling. The law was upheld by a federal judge in September, allowing it to go into effect, but the Justice Department appealed the decision to the 11th Circuit Court last week.
The decision came as Justice Department officials made a visit to Alabama to investigate civil rights violations under the law and address concerns about vigilante justice.
Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the DOJ Civil Rights Division, and U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance, along with a team of lawyers from both offices, are meeting on Friday with police officials, religious leaders and community organizations to talk about the law.
"We are hearing some concerns about vigilante enforcement of the law by private citizens," Vance said on a call with reporters, emphasizing that it is still too soon to tell whether these acts have occurred. "Of course, if there are any hate crimes that occurred, that is something that we will be taking a close look at."
Perez and Vance said they had been told some Latinos in the state have taken their children out of school. Most K-12 students -- 98.7 percent -- in Alabama are U.S. citizens, meaning the percentage of undocumented immigrants in school is very small, Perez said.
One blocked provision of the law allows school officials to inquire about a student's immigration status before enrollment, causing fear among some undocumented parents that it could lead to their deportation. Although the exact number of students who have withdrawn from school is still unclear, Perez called the situation "troubling," especially because the Civil Rights Act and Supreme Court precedent are meant to ensure that all students, regardless of legal status, can attend public schools.
Many residents have also reported an increase of bullying in schools, particularly of Latino students and other children of immigrants, Perez said.
"Kids model the behavior of adults," Perez said. "There are certainly a number of disturbing reports of, 'You don't belong here, go back to where you came from.' And again, I'll underscore that where these kids came from is Alabama."
Teachers and school officials said the removal of students from school could lead to lower overall test scores, because some of the students in question were among the highest-performing.
"The kids that are leaving are some of the highest-performing kids because of the emphasis on education that parents had put," Perez said. "I'm the son of immigrants, I have four siblings and they're all doctors. Growing up it was all about education."
Although the Justice Department and U.S. Attorneys are monitoring for adverse effects of the law, Vance reiterated that they would continue to prosecute crime and illegal entry into the United States, particularly from violent criminals and drug dealers.
But part of good policing is to maintain contacts within communities, including among undocumented residents, Perez said. He said the Justice Department team has heard concerns that victims of crime, such as human trafficking and domestic violence, might be afraid to come to police for fear of deportation.
"The linchpin of community policing is building trust between police and community," Perez said. "We've heard many reports that there may be under-reporting of various crimes as a result [of the law]. ... I'm talking about things we've heard in the last 45 minutes."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article reported that the court decision had blocked the enforcement of four provisions of H.B. 56, when in fact only two provisions have been blocked. We regret the error.