Six days before Arizona’s new immigration law is set to take effect, the fate of the controversial legislation rests with a federal judge who on Thursday heard from Obama administration lawyers seeking to stop its enactment.
Although Judge Susan Bolton made no ruling after a 90-minute hearing in which Justice Department attorneys argued that the law interferes with federal powers, some of her remarks led backers and opponents of the law to draw their own conclusions.
"I’m optimistically hopeful that if not all, almost all of this law is going to survive,” says state Rep. John Kavanagh, a Republican who helped sponsor the legislation that has sparked criticism and several economic boycotts.
Phoenix attorney Antonio Bustamante told demonstrators gathered outside, amid a heavy police presence, that it seemed as if the judge might let stand a portion of the law that requires local and state authorities to determine whether a person is in the country illegally. “That’s the most egregious,” he says.
The Justice Department was the third argued before the judge concerning Arizona's law. It is one of seven suits filed by individuals and civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union. Critics contend the law is unconstitutional and will lead to racial profiling.
In arguing for an injunction to halt the law from taking effect, Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler said the Constitution gives the federal government exclusive authority to enforce immigration law. Arizona’s new law would create a burden for federal enforcement and raise serious concerns with respect to human rights and foreign policy, he said.
He called the state law “an unprecedented package of enforcement measure … in explicit disagreement with the federal government.”
The state’s attorney, John Bouma, argued that the new statute is consistent with federal law and deals with immigration matters affecting Arizona that the federal government neglects. He noted that even President Obama acknowledges the system is broken.
Granting an injunction to block enforcement of the law would harm Arizona, Mr. Bouma said, and is not in the public interest.
Throughout the hearing, Judge Bolton fired a flurry of questions and comments that hinted at her thought process. At one point she asked Mr. Kneedler why Arizona cannot be as inhospitable as it wants toward those who enter the US illegally. And to Bouma she pointed out that the removal process of someone with illegal status is a “complex, highly litigated determination” that a federal immigration judge makes.
Gov. Jan Brewer (R), who in April signed the law creating several state crimes related to immigration, watched the proceedings in the crowded courtroom and later told reporters she felt confident the state would prevail.
The judge adjourned the hearing Thursday afternoon without saying when she will rule. Whenever her decision comes down, it is likely to have major implications – including whether other states will move to adopt similar legislation.
Outside the courtroom, opponents of the statute vowed to stage acts of civil disobedience whether or not the law is implemented July 29. “Do not work! Do not buy! Do not comply!” read fliers distributed to the crowd. Police arrested seven demonstrators who held a giant banner and blocked traffic at a busy intersection.
Jose Luis Hernandez, who stood in front of the courthouse with his family, says he hopes the judge quashes the law because it targets people on the basis of their appearance. “I’m a legal resident, but people like me will get stopped,” says Mr. Hernandez, who came here from Mexico two decades ago.
Backers of the Arizona law also held demonstrations, holding signs that showed support for cracking down on illegal immigration.
Bryan Berkland, who says he is a "tea party" movement member, expressed disdain for the federal government’s suit. “It’s completely unfounded,” he says.
He favors the law to get a handle on illegal immigration and says the statute has nothing to do with race or ethnicity.
“Illegal is illegal – it’s breaking the law,” Mr. Berkland says. “And this is a nation of laws.”