PHOENIX (Reuters) - A U.S. judge grilled lawyers for the Obama administration and Arizona on Thursday over the legality of the state’s tough, new immigration law set to take effect next week, but gave no timetable for a ruling.
The Obama administration is seeking a preliminary injunction blocking next Thursday’s implementation of the law that requires state and local police, during lawful contact, to investigate the immigration status of anyone they reasonably suspect of being an illegal immigrant.
U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton peppered lawyers for both sides during a 90-minute hearing over whether the state law contravenes federal authority over immigration law, and if predictions by critics that it will lead to racial profiling were overstated and unwarranted.
Her ruling could come at any time.
Bolton asked Justice Department counsel Edwin Kneedler to explain how the state law trumped the federal government’s authority, asking “why can’t Arizona be as inhospitable as they wish” to people who have entered the United States illegally.
She also questioned the lawyer for the state of Arizona over the administration’s concern about the impact on U.S. foreign policy. Mexico and other countries have expressed outrage over the new law.
“It seems to have gotten some people from foreign countries upset with us,” she said during the oral arguments.
The fight over the Arizona law has complicated the White House’s effort to break the deadlock with Republicans in the U.S. Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration law, an already difficult task in an election year.
Opinion polls consistently show the Arizona law is supported by a solid majority of U.S. voters, posing risks for Obama in opposing the measure, which he warns could lead to a ‘patchwork’ of conflicting state laws across the country.
The Obama administration lawyer contended that the federal government was responsible for setting immigration laws and that the Arizona measure threatened to undermine U.S. foreign policy.
“What we have is an unprecedented package of enforcement measures to adopt a state policy ... in exclusive disagreement with the federal government,” Kneedler said..
ARIZONA SAYS PLEAS HAVE ‘GONE UNHEEDED’
Arizona argued the federal government had failed to enforce federal immigration laws and therefore state legislators were forced to pass the law to try to stem the flow of illegal immigrants over the state’s border with Mexico and cut down on drug trafficking and crime.
“A law that is unenforced is no law at all,” said John Bouma, the lawyer representing Arizona. “We have had repeated pleas ... that have basically gone unheeded.”
Bolton could issue a preliminary injunction if she finds the Obama administration would ultimately succeed in its quest to have the law struck down.
“A ruling in either direction will probably be a very strong signal about how this judge views the validity of the Arizona law and the strength of the administration’s arguments,” said Carissa Hessick, an associate law professor at Arizona State University.
At stake is “whether the administration has the full authority over immigration policy and immigration enforcement,” she added.
Several hundred protesters demonstrated outside the courthouse during the hearing, chanting and banging drums. Police said seven were arrested for blocking traffic.
Additional reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix; Editing by Jeremy Pelofsky and Peter Cooney