PHOENIX An Arizona police officer on Thursday urged a federal judge to stop a strict new state immigration law from going into effect in the first of a series of legal challenges to the controversial statute.
U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton faces an unofficial decision deadline of July 29, the first day the law takes force, requiring state and local police to investigate the immigration status of anyone they reasonably suspect of being an illegal immigrant.
A majority of Americans support the state law, according to recent polls, but President Barack Obama's administration is trying to overturn it, arguing it is unconstitutional and would sap law enforcement resources.
That has turned the state issue into national political fodder for the November mid-term election in which Obama's Democratic party is fighting to keep control of Congress.
Next week the U.S. Justice Department, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups will make similar pleas to overturn the law. As a first step they have asked the judge to put it on hold until the legal fight is over.
Phoenix police officer David Salgado and his lawyers argued the law would force him to use race to carry out the rules.
"The state of Arizona cannot order its employees to violate federal law," said Stephen Montoya, the attorney for Salgado, who argued the law would usurp federal authority and fracture national immigration policy among the 50 states.
"We can't have 50 immigration laws," he added.
The United States has an estimated 10.8 million illegal immigrants, but the Obama administration has focused on other issues, such as health care and financial reform, leaving states in limbo, and some have decided to tackle immigration on their own.
A Pew Research Center poll showed 59 percent of people approve of Arizona's stand.
But Latinos -- many of whom are opposed to the law -- are a fast-growing part of the population and both parties want their support, which has tended to go to Democrats.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican, says the Obama administration lawsuit is a waste of funds and the law was necessary because the federal government had not done its job of clamping down on illegal border crossings that plague the state.
Attorney John Bouma, representing the state, told the court the law was in line with federal rules and thus did not undermine the Department of Justice.
Arguing against a preliminary injunction, Bouma said there was no irreparable harm to enforcing the law, while putting it on hold would delay addressing the problems of illegal immigration.
(Reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix; Writing by Peter Henderson; Editing by Jerry Norton)