ATLANTA — A panel of federal appeals court judges in Georgia said today it will wait for direction from the U.S. Supreme Court before deciding the constitutionality of Georgia and Alabama's immigration laws.
Both states were represented in the 11th District Court of Appeals in Atlanta, seeking relief from district courts that struck down key provisions of their individual immigration laws last year.
While a panel of three judges spent three hours hearing all sides of each state's case, the timeline on its decision depends upon what happens with Arizona's immigration law.
Arizona, unlike Georgia, is being sued by the federal government for its efforts at immigration regulation.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on that state's law in late April.
Georgia is appealing a June decision by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Thrash to block two sections of the state's anti-illegal immigration bill: one that makes it a crime to knowingly transport illegal immigrants and another that authorizes local law enforcement to check the immigration status of any suspect.
Georgia's legal opponents are civil and human rights groups, a number of whom marched outside the downtown courthouse throughout the morning's hearings.
They call those portions of the bill unconstitutional.
Inside the courthouse, attorneys for Georgia and the human rights groups revisited many of the arguments they made in a June 2010 hearing.
Georgia's Attorney General's Office held fast that its law, House Bill 87, in no way pre-empts federal immigration law. State officials say the bill helps to mitigate the costs of illegal immigration on the taxpayer.
"It's axiomatic that both state and federal government can prosecute criminals," said Devon Orland, senior assistant attorney for the Attorney General's Office.
Judges, too, quizzed an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union on whether states had a right to write laws that complement federal law, especially if a federal issue like immigration "morphs" into a public safety issue.
But the attorney, Omar Jadwat, said the Georgia law creates a scenario never before seen in American history.
"We've never had a requirement in this country to carry identification to be free from detention by police," he said.
Among other plaintiffs, the ACLU and the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights have claimed the law violates a constitutional protection against illegal search and seizure and invites racial profiling by local law enforcement.
Mario Venegas, who marched outside the courthouse with a "Georgia Doesn't Grow without Immigrants" poster Wednesday morning, said he felt the law already had encouraged racial profiling in Latino communities.
"You can feel it," the landscaper from Lawrenceville said.
Venegas marched back and forth with a group of activists from both Alabama and Georgia, carrying other signs, like one that read "Racism Rots Georgia," and chanting "Que es eso que hace ruido? El pueblo que está unido!" which means, "What is that noise? The people united!"
After the hearing, they stood behind lawyers for the human rights groups as they addressed the media.
And during that press conference, Jadwat was cautious about whether the group would prevail in the appeals court.
"We won before, and hopefully we'll win again," he told reporters outside the courtroom.
While two provisions of Georgia's law are currently on hold, many provisions have been allowed to continue.
Among them is one that makes it a felony with hefty penalties to use false information or documentation when applying for a job. Another creates an immigration review board to investigate complaints about government officials not complying with state laws related to illegal immigration.
The new law also requires businesses with 500 or more employees to use a federal database to check the immigration status of new hires, a requirement that will be phased in for all businesses with more than 10 employees by July 2013.
Applicants for public benefits also have to provide at least one state or federally issued "secure and verifiable" document.