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Judge Hears First Major Challenge to Arizona Immigration Law

A federal judge in Phoenix heard arguments Thursday in the first of seven lawsuits filed against the state’s controversial new immigration law.

U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton questioned both sides sharply, but gave no indication of how she might rule on the new law, which is scheduled to go into effect July 29. The law requires officers, while enforcing other laws, to ask individuals about their immigration status where “reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien and is unlawfully present.”

The law also mandates that legal immigrants must carry documentation that proves their legal status.

Monday’s legal challenge was brought by Phoenix police officer David Salgado, and joined by statewide nonprofit group Chicanos Por La Causa. They want Judge Bolton to issue an injunction to stall the law, on the grounds that carrying it out would force police to violate the Constitution and accusations of racial profiling. Stephen Montoya, an attorney representing Officer Salgado, added, “We believe to enforce this law would set officers up for future federal civil rights lawsuits.”

Lawyers for the state of Arizona fought back. John Bouma, an attorney representing Gov. Jan Brewer, countered that the federal government has fallen short by failing to secure the border. He called the lawsuit “based on speculation,” and said it should be thrown out.

Andrew Hasbun, a reporter for the local Phoenix Fox TV affiliate, said there were some protesters outside the courthouse, “maybe about a dozen people on each side of the law.” That mixed reaction mirrors the split within the law enforcement community. Some officers worry it could spark fear, preventing witnesses and victims of crime from coming forward to talk to the police. Not only does it fail to fix the problem of illegal immigration, says Phoenix Chief of Police Jack Harris, “it adds new problems for local law enforcement.”

But Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu sees it differently. He says the new law is a necessary tool for law enforcement to combat violence along the border with Mexico that has gotten out of control.

“We need help in this state where more than half of all illegal immigrants enter through,” says Babeu, who adds that fears the law could lead to racial discrimination are unfounded. “I have full faith and trust in our law enforcement officers. We’re talking about men and women honorably wearing the badge who are not going to racially profile anyone.”

Though a ruling is unlikely to come down quickly, similar hearings are planned for six other lawsuits against the Arizona law next week, including a federal challenge from the Department of Justice. The government’s suit is not based on racial profiling (although Attorney General Eric Holder has not ruled out that possibility in the future); rather, it’s based on a legal doctrine called pre-emption. In layman’s terms, explains Scotusblog.com founder Tom Goldstein: “That’s the rule that federal law, such as federal immigration law, controls over state law, even in some cases state law that is consistent.”

Judge Bolton will hear arguments from the Justice Department and other civil rights groups on July 22.

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