A federal appeals court last Friday blocked a key part of a state law that requires schools to check the immigration status of students, temporarily weakening what was considered the toughest immigration law in the nation.
The 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals also blocked a part of the Alabama law that allows authorities to charge immigrants who do not carry documents proving their legal status. The three-judge panel let stand a provision that allows police to detain immigrants that are suspected of being in the country illegally.
The ruling was only temporary. A final decision on the law won't likely be made for months.
Groups who challenged the law said they were hopeful the judges would eventually block the rest of it.
"I think that, certainly, it's a better situation today for the people of Alabama than it was yesterday," said Omar Jadwat, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which challenged the law along with the Obama administration. "Obviously, we remain concerned about the remainder of the provisions, and we remain confident that we will eventually get the whole scheme blocked."
Supporters of the law also claimed a partial victory.
Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard, who championed the law, said the "most effectual parts" of the law will remain in place.
"We've said from the beginning that Alabama will have a strict immigration law and we will enforce it. Alabama will not be a sanctuary state for illegal aliens, and this ruling reinforces that," he said.
The judges also let stand parts of the law that bar state courts from enforcing contracts involving illegal immigrants and make it a felony for an illegal immigrant to do business with the state for basic things like getting a driver's licence.
Alabama Republicans have long sought to clamp down on illegal immigration and passed the law earlier this year after gaining control of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley signed the measure, saying it was crucial to protect the jobs of legal residents amid the tough economy and high unemployment.
The law has already had a deep impact in Alabama since a federal judge upheld much of it in late September. Many frightened Hispanics have been driven away from Alabama, fearing they could be arrested or targeted by police. Construction workers, landscapers and field hands have stopped showing up for work, and large numbers of Hispanic students have been absent from public schools.
To cope with the labour shortage, Alabama Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan at one point suggested farmers should consider hiring inmates in the state's work-release programme.
It's not clear exactly how many Hispanics have fled the state. Earlier this week, many skipped work to protest the law, shuttering or scaling back operations at chicken plants, Mexican restaurants and other businesses.
Immigration has become a hot-button issue in Alabama over the past decade, as the Hispanic population has grown by 145 per cent to about 185,600 people, most of them of Mexican origin. The Hispanic population represents about four per cent of the state's 4.7 million people, but some counties in north Alabama have large Spanish-speaking communities and schools where most of the students are Hispanic.
Requiring school officials to check the immigration status of students in public schools helped make the Alabama law stricter than similar measures enacted in Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia. Federal judges in those states have blocked all or parts of those laws.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer earlier this year asked the US Supreme Court to resolve the legal fight over her state's tough immigration law.
The Justice Department called the Alabama law a "sweeping new state regime" in court filings last week, and urged the appeals court to forbid states from creating a patchwork of immigration policies. The agency also said the law could strain diplomatic relations with Latin American countries, who have warned the law could impact millions of workers, tourists and students in the US
"Other states and their citizens are poorly served by the Alabama policy, which seeks to drive aliens from Alabama rather than achieve cooperation with the federal government to resolve a national problem," the attorneys said in court documents.