Arizona's impending immigration law went before a federal judge for the first time Thursday, and attorneys for both sides sparred over who had the right to enforce immigration law: local officials or the federal government.
U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton didn't rule on whether to block the law from taking effect July 29, or whether to dismiss the lawsuit, one of seven. Hearings in two other lawsuits — including one filed by the federal government — are set for July 22, and the judge has been careful to give no hints on who she might favor.
At stake is more than just who can detain illegal immigrants within U.S. borders. If Bolton rules in Arizona's favor, it opens the door to states taking on issues that have long been the responsibility of the federal government.
John Bouma, an attorney representing the state, argued Arizona shouldn't have to suffer from the country's broken immigration system when it has 15,000 police officers who can arrest illegal immigrants.
"Just leaving it in the status quo leaves the state of Arizona in economic harm, in irreparable harm, every day," Bouma said, noting the state's steep education and health care costs for illegal immigrants.
But allowing Arizona to carry out its own immigration law violates all court decisions that hold that only the federal government can handle immigration, said Stephen Montoya, an attorney for Phoenix police Officer David Salgado, who filed the lawsuit along with the statewide nonprofit group Chicanos Por La Causa.
"The federal government doesn't want this assistance," Montoya said.
More than 25,000 people have donated more than $1.2 million to a fund established in May to help the state pay to defend the law, Gov. Jan Brewer's office said Thursday.
Salgado's attorneys want the judge to block the law before it takes effect, saying it would require an officer to use race as a primary factor in deciding how to enforce it. Supporters insist that officers would not be allowed to question someone based solely on their race.
Attorneys for Brewer told Bolton that the lawsuit should be dismissed because Salgado and the group haven't alleged a real threat of harm from enforcing the new law and instead are basing their claim on speculation.
But Salgado's attorney disagreed.
"He does have a real threat," Montoya said. "They can fire him. That's enough."
Protesters and supporters of the law gathered outside the courthouse, separated by at least seven Phoenix police officers.
About two dozen supporters, many dressed in red, white and blue, held up signs praising Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a major backer of the crackdown on illegal immigrants, and one that said "American Pride."
Larry Templeton, 66, of Sun City, said he came to support the law because he believes in defending states' rights.
"They're saying it's racist. It isn't anti any race, it's anti-criminal," said Templeton, who wore an American flag T-shirt and a hat with American flag buttons.
About 10 feet away, some 30 people opposed to the law held up signs calling for its repeal.
"We demand an injunction. We demand a federal intervention," opponent Sandra Castro of Phoenix, 22, yelled into a bullhorn.
The law requires police, while enforcing other laws, to question a person's immigration status if officers have a reasonable suspicion that the person is in the country illegally.
Montoya said the U.S. Department of Justice's separate challenge to the Arizona law bolsters his clients' argument that the state law is unconstitutional. Both lawsuits contend the state law intrudes on the federal government's constitutional authority to set and enforce immigration policy and regulation.
"That's one more opinion," Bouma said. "The fact that they brought the claim doesn't mean they are correct."
Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, whose office normally defends state laws in courts, bowed to a demand by Brewer and withdrew last month as the state's lawyer in the challenges, leaving Brewer's attorneys to defend the law. Brewer and Goddard are both running for governor this year.
The Republican governor complained that the Democratic attorney general had raised doubts about his ability to defend it. Goddard said Brewer's threat to have him removed would be an expensive fight for the state.
The large ceremonial courtroom at the main federal courthouse in Phoenix was packed with more than 100 spectators as the hearing began. More than a dozen lawyers were in place along two L-shaped tables, evenly divided between each side. The jury box was filled with law clerks for judges who work in the building who came to observe.
Since Brewer signed the measure into law April 23, it has inspired rallies in Arizona and elsewhere by advocates on both sides of the immigration debate. Some opponents have advocated a tourism boycott of Arizona.
It also led an unknown number of illegal immigrants to leave Arizona for other American states or their home countries and prompted the Obama administration to file a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the law.
The other challenges to the law were filed by the civil rights organizations, clergy groups, a researcher from Washington and a Tucson police officer.
Arpaio, the sheriff known for housing inmates in tents in the desert, said he has vacant spots in the tents for about 1,000 prisoners and is willing to add more to house illegal immigrants convicted under the law.
"I will handle as many as comes in," Arpaio said.
Associated Press Writers Paul Davenport and Michelle Price contributed to this report.
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