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Court blocks more parts of Alabama immigration law

(Reuters) - An appeals court ordered the state of Alabama on Thursday to stop enforcing additional parts of its controversial new immigration law, pending review of a federal challenge to the measure that is considered the toughest in the nation.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, based in Atlanta, issued a brief order expanding its initial injunction to include provisions that barred illegal immigrants from obtaining a driver's license and barred courts from enforcing contracts that involved illegal immigrants.

The appeals court in October blocked the state from enforcing another key provision of the law that required schools to check the immigration status of children on enrollment.

The provisions are blocked pending the outcome of the legal challenge by President Barack Obama's administration, which has argued that regulation of immigration should be handled by the federal government and not the states.

In its ruling in October, the appeals court also blocked a provision of the Alabama law, which was passed last year by large margins in both chambers of the Southern state's Republican-led Legislature, that made failing to carry documents proving legal residency status a misdemeanor crime.

That part of the law resulted in some embarrassing incidents when two foreign employees in Alabama's important auto industry were detained briefly for failing to produce proof of legal residency.

Businesses in the state, especially farmers, have also protested the law, saying it had caused widespread departures of Hispanic workers from the state, creating an employee shortage.

After the incidents, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley said he and the Republican leadership of the Legislature would review the new law, but not repeal it.

"I will continue to vigorously defend Alabama's immigration law in the courts," Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange said on Thursday. "I am hopeful that the Supreme Court's coming decision in the Arizona case will make clear that our law is constitutional."

Arizona in 2010 became the first state to pass a tough immigration law, parts of which were also blocked by the courts. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case, which could clarify whether states have a role in immigration policy.

Illegal immigration is a contentious issue in the United States, where an estimated 11.2 million illegal immigrants live.

In the Alabama case, the court on Thursday ruled the state could continue to authorize police to detain people suspected of being in the country illegally if they could not produce proper documentation when stopped for any reason.

Federal judges previously blocked key parts of other immigration laws passed in Georgia, Arizona, Utah and Indiana.

Mary Bauer, legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the court's action was noteworthy because there was no motion pending before it on the matter, so the ruling was of the three-member panel's own volition.

The SPLC is joined in opposition to the law by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Alabama, the National Immigration Law Center, the Asian Law Caucus and the Asian American Justice Center.

(Reporting By Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington; Editing by Greg McCune and Peter Cooney)

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