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Civil rights groups sue challenging Alabama anti-illegal immigrant law

By the CNN Wire Staff
Gov. Robert Bentley signs Alabama's immigration legislation June 9. The law is set to take effect in September.
Gov. Robert Bentley signs Alabama's immigration legislation June 9. The law is set to take effect in September.
  • NEW: A spokeswoman for Alabama's governor stands behind the legislation
  • The Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU and other join in filing a lawsuit in federal court
  • The lawsuit claims that an anti-illegal immigrant law passed in Alabama is unconstitutional
  • An SPLC official calls the bill even more "radical" than similar ones in Arizona and Georgia

(CNN) -- Several prominent civil rights groups filed a class action lawsuit Friday challenging Alabama's new anti-illegal immigration law, the latest such legal effort aimed at similar bills passed in various states.

The suit claims the recently passed HB 56 "endangers public safety, invites the racial profiling of Latinos, Asians and others who appear foreign to an officer, and interferes with federal law," according to a press release Friday sent by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

That group allied with several other groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, National Immigration Law Center, Asian Law Caucus and Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama. Their lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for Northern Alabama.

Mary Bauer, the Southern Poverty Law Center's legal director, told CNN that she believed the law is "radical" -- even more so than similar bills enacted in Arizona and Georgia, for instance -- and sent a clear, unwelcoming message to immigrants.

"We hope the law never goes into effect," said Bauer.

The Alabama legislation, known as HB 56, was passed and signed by Gov. Robert Bentley last month and is set to take effect on September 1.

Bentley's spokeswoman, Rebekah Mason, issued a statement Friday standing behind the bill.

"Gov. Bentley campaigned on the need for a strong immigration bill," said Mason. "The legislature passed that bill, and the governor signed it."

Suzanne Webb, a spokeswoman for Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, said by e-mail Friday afternoon that her office had yet to get a copy of the complaint, and thus had no comment on the specifics. Regardless, she said the attorney general planned to defend the controversial measure.

"Under state law, acts of our legislature are presumed to be constitutional, and it is the duty of this office to defend them, and we will do so," said Webb.

While immigration had long been a federal responsibility, other anti-illegal immigration measures have been passed in recent months in Arizona, Utah, Georgia, Indiana and South Carolina. Parts of those laws have been suspended in four of those states, pending resolutions to the lawsuits.

Last month, a federal judge struck down a key part of the Georgia law in deciding police cannot inquire about immigration status when questioning suspects in certain criminal investigations.

Alabama's law has a similar provision. According to a fact sheet presented by Alabama House Republicans, the bill requires law enforcement officers "to attempt to determine the immigration status of a person who they suspect is an unauthorized alien of this country."

The legislation also makes it a criminal offense to transport or house to an illegal immigrant. The state will have to check the citizenship of students, and any business that knowingly employs an illegal immigrant will be penalized.

Republican state Rep. John Merrill told CNN in June that the legislation is "good for Alabama" because it will reduce illegal immigration to the state and "provide equal opportunities for all people who want to come to Alabama legally."

He rejected suggestions the law is discriminatory, saying he is confident it was drafted in such a way that it will survive legal challenges.

But several civil rights advocates called the Alabama bill unconstitutional and unfair, vowing in the SPLC's press release to fight it in court on a number of grounds.

Sin Yen Ling, an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, called it the "harshest version" of the laws that have followed Arizona's pioneering measure. Among other aspects, the measure will "turn teachers, landlords and community members into de facto immigration enforcement agents," claimed Linton Joaquin of the National Immigration Law Center.

Olivia Turner, the executive director of the ACLU in Alabama, said the bill marks a big step backward for the state, which had been central in the civil rights movement.

"In the nearly 50 years since the historical and worldwide movement for civil and human rights began in our state, real progress has been made," said Turner. "But this law threatens to pull us back to a dark and shameful past -- and one in which all Alabamians were held back."

CNN's Gustavo Valdes contributed to this report.