Dave Martin / AP file
Protestors march outside the Alabama Capitol during a demonstration against Alabama's immigration law in Montgomery, Ala.on Nov. 15.
The Justice Department has sent a letter to dozens of local law enforcement agencies in Alabama that receive federal money, warning them that they risk losing that funding if they're not careful in how they enforce the state's tough new immigration law.
The Obama administration has already sued the state, claiming that the law is unconstitutional. Now it's keeping the pressure on by addressing how the law is carried out.
The law, HB56 passed by the Alabama Legislature in June, attempts to combat illegal immigration by establishing harsh penalties for employers who hire undocumented workers, requiring public schools to report children and parents who are not legal residents, and forbidding illegal migrants from having any transactions with the government. The law creates new immigration crimes, and puts local police in the position of enforcing immigration.
Federal justice officials were in Birmingham last week to investigate the civil rights impacts of HB56, which is designed to make it extremely uncomfortable, if not impossible, for illegal immigrants to live in the state. Among the officials was Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general of Justice Department’s civil rights division.
In an unusual letter addressed to 156 Alabama sheriff's offices and police departments, Perez tells them that the federal government is monitoring how they enforce the part of the law that requires checking the immigration status of people who are stopped for questioning.
It is critical, Perez says, that local law agencies "ensure that your enforcement of this law does not result in unlawful stopping, questioning, searching, detaining, or arresting" in violation of the Constitution "or targeting of racial and ethnic minorities."
Other states have passed similar laws, but they've been blocked by federal courts. A federal judge in Alabama, however, allowed the law to go into effect.
State Sen. Bill Beasley, a Democrat, is leading an effort to repeal HB56 in the upcoming session.
In the meantime, there are forces aside from the federal government chipping away at various provisions in the law.
Courts have put some provisions on temporary hold, including Section 13, which makes it a crime to transport or shelter an undocumented immigrant — putting many charitable and religious operations at risk of prosecution.
A court also enjoined Section 28 of the bill, which requires school officials to inquire about the legal status of public school children and their parents. The ruling came after the state’s Education Department reported that more than 2,200 Latino students, were suddenly absent from school.
The bill was touted as a way to provide jobs for Alabama’s legal residents amid a tough economy. There has been a backlash from the farm, poultry and construction industries, which started seeing an exodus of Hispanic workers — including many with legal status — after the bill was passed.
In the late summer and early fall, Alabama farmers who lost workers were unable to get their tomatoes, potatoes and other labor-intensive crops in time, and watched them rot in the fields.
“I certainly don’t feel the Legislature wanted legals leaving Alabama,” says Jay Reed, president of the Alabama Associated Builders Contractors, and co-chair of a group called Alabama Employers for Immigration Reform. “However, that is the case. For right at 30 years, employers have followed the hiring guidelines and to change that overnight left a void in Alabama’s work force."
Pete Williams is NBC News' justice correspondent. Kari Huus is an msnbc.com writer.
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