ATLANTA (AP) — When a federal appeals court hears arguments Thursday in the legal challenges against tough new laws targeting illegal immigration in Alabama and Georgia, people outside of those two states will be paying attention.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear arguments on two separate challenges to Alabama's law, one filed by immigrant rights and civil liberties groups and the other filed by the U.S. Department of Justice. The three-judge panel will also hear arguments on a challenge to Georgia's new law filed by activist groups.
In the case pitting Alabama against the federal government, the attorneys general in nine other states — Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma and South Carolina — have filed an amicus brief supporting the state of Alabama. They say in the brief that they "have a manifest interest in ensuring that their sovereignty is accorded proper respect."
The Atlanta appeals court has jurisdiction over Georgia, Florida and Alabama. But the opinions the court releases could also influence judges in other jurisdictions and demonstrate to lawmakers what provisions federal courts are likely to accept or reject.
Under consideration by the federal judges are provisions that include one that would allow Georgia police to check the immigration status of certain suspects and another requiring Alabama schools to check students' immigration status.
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt joined the amicus brief because "the case involves an important federalism and state sovereignty issue," said Pruitt spokesman Diane Clay.
"The court is not considering whether Alabama's immigration law is good or bad, but whether a state is allowed to enact such laws," Clay wrote in email to The Associated Press.
Florida's Attorney General Pam Bondi, another advocate of state sovereignty, said states need to be able to implement their own solutions to problems.
"The Attorney General supports defending the ability of each state to decide for itself how to protect its citizens from the crime and costs associated with illegal immigration," Bondi spokeswoman Jenn Meale said.
Foreign governments — including Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Peru — have also filed amicus briefs opposing the laws in both the Alabama and Georgia cases.
Mexico said in a brief opposing Georgia's law that it would strain diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Mexico, "interfering with the strategic diplomatic interests of the two countries and encouraging an imminent threat of state-sanctioned bias or discrimination." The federal government has made a similar argument in its court filings against Alabama.
Thursday's oral arguments come as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments in April on a federal government challenge to a similar law passed by Arizona. That state in 2010 became the first to pass such a sweeping law taking aim at illegal immigration. That law was challenged by both activist groups and the federal government. After a federal court blocked parts of the law and a federal appeals court upheld that decision, Arizona appealed to the Supreme Court.
A decision in the Arizona case before the U.S. high court is expected by early summer. It's not known whether the 11th Circuit will wait for that decision to issue opinions in the Georgia and Alabama cases since some similar issues are on the table.
Five other states — Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah — adopted variations on the law last year, with Alabama's widely considered the toughest in the nation. All five laws have been challenged by coalitions of civil rights and immigrant rights groups, and the federal government has sued to block those in Alabama, South Carolina and Utah.
"I do think other states are watching this closely," said Omar Jadwat, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who's set to argue before the 11th Circuit Thursday. "Realistically, I think it's going to be a combination of what happens in this case and what happens in the Supreme Court case that folks in other states are going to look at. If anti-immigrant legislators in other states think that this is a path that is open to them, they'll try to get their states to go down the same path."
Opponents of the measures argue such laws lead to discrimination and racial profiling and that immigration is a federal issue that shouldn't be governed by a patchwork of state laws. Supporters say states have been forced to act to protect their resources because the federal government hasn't done enough to quell the influx of illegal immigrants.
A federal judge in June temporarily blocked parts of Georgia's law pending the outcome of the legal challenge filed by the activist groups. One blocked section would authorize police to check the immigration status of suspects who don't have proper identification. The other would create a state penalty for people who knowingly and willingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants while committing another crime.
Georgia appealed that decision to the 11th Circuit, which means the court will be deciding whether the injunction can remain in place.
After a federal judge in Alabama declined in September to block many provisions of that state's law, the 11th Circuit in October temporarily blocked some parts, including a requirement for schools to check students' immigration status. But the appeals court left intact a section that allows police to check a person's immigration status during a traffic stop and to detain someone they believe is in the country illegally. Courts also can't enforce contracts involving illegal immigrants, such as leases, and it's a felony for an illegal immigrant to do business with the state for basic things such as getting a driver's license.
The 11th Circuit will now decide whether to block sections of the law that had been allowed to go into effect, and whether to leave the injunctions previously obtained on other sections in place.
Associated Press writers Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City, Okla., and Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami contributed to this report.