Friday, July 23, 2010

U.S. Lays Out Case Against Arizona Law


Protesters of Arizona’s new immigration law marched in front of a federal courthouse in Phoenix on Thursday.

By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.
Published: July 22, 2010

PHOENIX — With just a week remaining before Arizona’s stringent new immigration law is set to take effect, a federal judge in Phoenix heard, for the first time, from Obama administration lawyers urging her to strike down the controversial legislation while dozens of demonstrators argued both sides outside the courthouse.

As protesters blocked traffic, chanted, sang, yelled and banged on bass drums, lawyers from the Justice Department and for the State of Arizona sparred over whether the law, known locally as SB1070, violates the United States Constitution’s supremacy clause, which says federal law generally trumps state law. The federal judge, Susan R. Bolton, asked pointed questions of both sides, but made no ruling from the bench before adjourning at 3 p.m.

The hearing marked the first opportunity for the Obama administration to explain why it feels Arizona should not be allowed to empower local police to demand some proof of citizenship from people they suspect are illegal immigrants.

Edwin S. Kneedler, the lawyer for the federal government, argued that the federal government has the sole authority to enforce immigration laws under the Constitution and that Arizona was, in essence, establishing its own immigration policy — which in some cases would be stricter than the federal law and does not take into account either humanitarian concerns or the government’s foreign policy goals.

“The regulation of immigration is unquestionably, exclusively, a federal power,” he said.

With Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed and has fervently defended the legislation, sitting in the courtroom, the lawyer representing Arizona, John J. Bouma, asserted that the state law actually mirrors the letter of the federal law, even if that federal law is not enforced fully in practice. He argued the state had every right to ask its peace officers to call up federal authorities and check on a person’s immigration status during routine traffic stops or other arrests, even if it created a headache for federal authorities.

“You can’t catch them if you don’t know about them, and they don’t want to know about them — that’s what they are saying,” Mr. Bouma said, gesturing to the Justice Department lawyers.

“What we get is the plaintiff over here saying we cannot do anything,” he added. “That it’s not Arizona’s problem, that we should just live with it.”

As Judge Bolton questioned the federal government’s counsel, she expressed skepticism that the state was indeed carrying out its own immigration enforcement policy. She asked several times whether the statute would actually take the decision about what to do with an illegal immigrant away from federal authorities.

“How does it become immigration enforcement policy? It’s an immigration status check,” she said. “Arizona cannot remove anybody, and they don’t purport they can.”

Her comments during the hearing, along with those she made during a hearing in the morning on another suit brought by civil rights groups, suggested she is likely to rule on whether certain parts of the law are pre-empted by federal law, rather than striking down the entire law.

The courtroom was packed with spectators, many from civil rights groups and charities that aid immigrants.

Outside the courthouse, people of all political stripes mounted noisy demonstrations. Charlene Greenwood, 46 and unemployed, described herself as a Tea Party member, wore a semiautomatic pistol on her hip and signs that read, “Illegal immigrants have better health care than I do” and, “Bank robbers, drug dealers and prostitutes are just trying to support their families too.”

She said she regarded all illegal immigrants as criminals and people who support them as traitors. She said the state had to step in because the federal government had failed to stop illegal immigrants from entering the country.

About 30 protesters blocked traffic, many wearing T-shirts that said “Stop the Hate.” Several unfurled a large, white banner that blared “Stop SB1070. We will not comply.” Others in the group held a banner in Spanish saying: “There is no problem with immigration; there is a problem with capitalism. Revolution is the solution.” After two hours, the police cleared the intersection and arrested seven people.

Antoinette Murray, 45, said she feared the law would prompt police officers to stop citizens who look Hispanic and arrest them if they cannot produce the right documents. “If they look at someone and they are of Mexican descent, they are going to be guilty until proven innocent,” she said. “It makes you guilty for being brown.”

Among the protesters were several illegal immigrants who were waiting for judges to decide their cases. Rudy Gomez, 37, said he came to the country illegally from Guatemala in 1997 and has been working as a roofer ever since.

He has four children and fears he may be caught and deported in the crackdown envisioned under the law, he said. “I’m not doing anything wrong,” he said. “This is my home. This is where I live.”

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