ATLANTA - The federal government asked an appeals court on Friday to halt an Alabama immigration law considered by many as the toughest in the United States, saying it invites discrimination against foreign-born citizens and legal immigrants.
The federal government filed the challenge to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. It claimed Alabama's new law "is highly likely to expose persons lawfully in the United States, including school children, to new difficulties in routine dealings."
The overhaul allows authorities to question people suspected of being in the country illegally and hold them without bond. It also lets officials check the immigration status of students in public schools.
A federal judge in Alabama upheld those two key aspects of the law, which have already taken effect.
"The surprise isn't that the feds are appealing last week's ruling," said CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen. "The surprise is that it has taken them so long to do so. They could have asked for an emergency stay last week before those two controversial provisions started to be enforced in Alabama schools and elsewhere.
"Perhaps the feds wanted to wait to see what Alabama officials would do - especially when it comes to undocumented students in public schools - before making their best arguments," said Cohen.
Those provisions that took effect are what help make the Alabama law stricter than similar laws passed in Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia. Other federal judges have blocked all or parts of the laws in those states.
Immigration became a hot issue in Alabama over the past decade as the state's Hispanic population grew by 145 percent to about 185,600. While the group still represents only about 4 percent of the population, some counties in north Alabama have large Spanish-speaking communities and schools where most of the students are Hispanic.
The Justice Department's appeal said parts of the law conflict with federal rules, and that "attempts to drive aliens 'off the grid' will only impede the removal process established by federal law." It also said the legislation could impact diplomatic relations with foreign countries.
"Alabama is not in a position to answer to other nations for the consequences of its policy," it said. "That is the responsibility of the federal government, which speaks for all the states and must ensure that the consequences of one state's foray in to the realm of immigration law are not visited upon the nation as a whole."
It also said requiring officers to report people without adequate credentials to federal immigration officials "unnecessarily diverts resources from federal enforcement priorities and precludes state and local officials from working in true cooperation with federal officials."