The U.S. Supreme Court Monday morning turned back Alabama's appeal of
a lower court's ruling striking down a portion of the state's immigration law
making it a state crime to conceal, harbor or transport undocumented aliens into
The appeal, filed in January by Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, asked the justices of the court to reconsider the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last year that the measure was pre-empted by existing federal law, saying it was "erroneous and broad" and arguing that states needed "more direction" from the court system on the measure.
As is customary, the justices did not give a reason for rejecting the appeal. Justice Antonin Scalia dissented from the court's decision.
The immigration law, known as HB 56 and signed by Gov. Robert Bentley on June 9, 2011, was modeled on a similar one passed by Arizona in 2010 and attempted to criminalize most aspects of the life of an undocumented immigrant in Alabama. However, a series of court challenges has removed almost all of the most controversial provisions of the law. Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a number of provisions of Arizona's law. the 11th Circuit, using the Arizona law as a model, did the same later that summer.
"The thing we take away from this is we were given clear instruction from the court in the Arizona decision that immigration law is a federal decision," said Sam Brooke, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represented plaintiffs seeking to overturn the law. "I think the real lesson to be learned here, and what we learned from HB 56 is we need meaningful, comprehensive immigration reform in DC."
Strange's office said in a statement Monday morning they were "disappointed" in the court's decision, adding that they hoped the high court would consider similar cases pending in other states.
"The parties and the court will have to sort through which issues have now been resolved by the Supreme Court in Arizona and the Eleventh Circuit in our cases," Strange spokeswoman Joy Patterson said in the statement. "Some issues will require further litigation, while other issues will not."
The harboring provision had drawn criticism from immigration rights advocates, who said it could make it a crime to rent to immigrants, or to transport them to religious services. Strange's brief did not address the merits of the provision, but argued that the 11th Circuit had "misapplied" the high court's ruling in the Arizona case to the Alabama law, claiming the high court did not directly address the harboring issues in the earlier decisions.
"Absent a definitive pronouncement from this Court, officials in five more States may soon have to choose between declining to enforce their statutes or defending lawsuits brought by the Justice Department or coalitions of private interest groups," the Attorney General's office wrote in its brief.
In a reply, Solictor General Don Verrilli argued the federal government had "broad power" to regulate immigration due to the national interests involved.
"The federal government's exclusive authority to regulate the terms and conditions of an alien's entry, movement and residence in the United States includes the authority to estbalish criminal sanctions against third parties who facilitate an alien's violation of those terms and conditions and the authority to decide whether and how such criminal sanctions may be imposed," the reply said.
The courts have let a provision stand that allows law enforcement to detain those they have "reasonable suspicion" of being in the country unlawfully, although the U.S. Supreme Court said in its Arizona decision it would accept challenges to that portion of the law. Brooke said Monday that attorneys are "engaging in discovery" for possible legal action against that provision in the law.
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