Court Hears Challenge To Arizona's Immigration Law

A federal judge in Phoenix heard the first arguments in a case challenging Arizona's tough immigration law Thursday. A police officer is asking for an injunction blocking the law — saying it's unconstitutional. There are more suits — including one by the Department of Justice that will be heard next week.

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The first legal challenge to Arizona's new immigration law began playing out yesterday in a Phoenix courtroom. Federal Judge Susan Bolton heard the arguments, and she's going to hear many more. Bolton is set to hear six of the seven lawsuits filed to block the measure. NPR's Ted Robbins was at yesterday's hearing and has this report.

TED ROBBINS: A few protestors, more police and still more media milled around in 110-degree heat outside the sleek glass and steel federal courthouse in downtown Phoenix. Inside, a couple of hundred people sat and stood in the large, round special proceedings courtroom to hear arguments in Salgado v. Brewer.

Salgado, the plaintiff, is David Salgado, a Phoenix police officer who does not want to enforce the new law because he thinks it's unconstitutional. He also fears being disciplined or fired if he doesn't enforce the law. He brought suit, along with the organization Chicanos Por La Causa, as he told reporters, because he thought it was the right thing to do.

Mr. DAVID SALGADO (Police Officer): When this law was created, when it was established and when it signed, I knew I had to take a step of faith on blocking this law because I had a duty to do that, as far as a citizen of Arizona and a Phoenix police officer.

ROBBINS: The defendant Brewer is, of course, Jan Brewer, Arizona's governor. She was not at the courthouse, but her lawyer, John Bouma, told reporters that the law should be allowed to take effect so people can see how it works.

Mr. JOHN BOUMA (Attorney): People can spin all their horror tales - and they all have - but what's really important is what actually happens, and the statute can always be examined in light of how it's actually implemented.

ROBBINS: The crux of all the lawsuits is the requirement that local police and sheriff's deputies question anyone's immigration status if they're stopped for another reason and police reasonably suspect the person is illegally in the country. Plaintiffs call it a new immigration law, something only the federal government has the authority to create. That's known as the Supremacy Clause, Article VI in the U.S. Constitution, which reserves certain powers, such as who comes into the country, how long they can stay and when they should leave for the feds(ph).

When that subject came up in court, Judge Bolton told the lawyer she'll wait until next week to discuss it. Next week is when she'll hear the U.S. Justice Department's lawsuit against Arizona.

Judge Bolton asked a lot of questions in this hearing of both sides, but her sharpest questioning came over a section of the law which requires police to hold suspects until federal immigration authorities determine their status. Here's how Salgado's attorney, Stephen Montoya, put it to reporters.

Mr. STEPHEN MONTOYA (Attorney): This law expressly allows law enforcement agencies to detain someone indefinitely until they prove they're an American citizen.

ROBBINS: Judge Bolton used herself as an example. She asked the state's attorney, John Bouma, what would happen if she were stopped for speeding, a minor offense, and an officer thought she might be in the country illegally. Would she be detained by the side of the road or taken to jail until the feds said she was a citizen? Bouma says Arizona's police officers know what to do.

Mr. BOUMA: We have 15,000 well-qualified police officers out there who make these kinds of decisions everyday on roadside stops and elsewhere.

ROBBINS: John Bolton took under advisement the request for a preliminary injunction to halt SB1070 from taking effect. It's hard to see why she would issue a ruling, though, before hearing the Justice Department case next week.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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