Court Hears Arizona Immigration Law Appeal

Arizona's controversial immigration law was the topic Monday at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Arizona wants the court to remove a stay that's blocking the main parts of SB 1070 from taking effect. Michele Norris talks with NPR's Ted Robbins, who was at Monday's arguments.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The state of Arizona faced some tough questions in federal appeals court today about its controversial new immigration law. The law requires police officers to check the immigration status of anybody they stop for another reason. But that provision has been on hold as the courts decide whether that's okay.

The issue is whether the state overstepped its legal authority by passing a law that enters the largely federal domain of regulating immigration.

NPR's Ted Robbins joins us from the courthouse in San Francisco. That's where the case was argued before a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

And, Ted, this is a very controversial law. What's the scene like at the courthouse?

TED ROBBINS: There were - there's tons of media, of course. And there were some demonstrators in favor of the Arizona law. In Los Angeles and in Arizona, there are some demonstrations scheduled against the law.

NORRIS: Arizona had asked for this hearing after a federal judge in Phoenix blocked parts of the law from taking effect. Ted, remind us of what was put on hold and what happened to those provisions today.

ROBBINS: Right. This law, which most people call SB1070, parts of it went into effect. But the parts which especially have to do with the state passing its own immigration law, those were the ones that were enjoined. For instance, the Arizona law requires police to question immigration status if they've stopped someone for something else. It makes it a crime for an illegal immigrant to solicit a job in Arizona. And it forces legal residents to carry proof that they're in the state legally.

So the question is whether that's all constitutional, or whether only the federal government has the right to make and enforce immigration laws.

NORRIS: It sounds like the judges had very sharp questions for the lawyers representing the state and the Justice Department. Could you walk us through some of that?

ROBBINS: What was interesting is what they didn't allow. They stopped discussion of the provision forbidding illegal immigrants from soliciting work. They said that existing law says you are not allowed to penalize someone for doing that. They also seemed to have decided about a provision requiring immigrants to show registration cards. They cut off discussion of that.

What they did ask a lot about was whether a state can pass and enforce immigration law. They seemed to take a dim view of that, and here's the way Judge Carlos Bea put it to Arizona's lawyer John Bouma.

Judge CARLOS BEA (9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals): Is your argument that a state can take a look at whether the federal government is enforcing its laws? And if the federal government is not enforcing its laws, it can enforce the laws for the federal government? For instance, if I don't pay my income tax to the federal government, can California come along and sue me for not paying my income tax?

ROBBINS: And then they turned around and just came back at the U.S., the Justice Department, the same way. They asked attorney Edwin Kneedler, pointing out that local law enforcement routinely helps federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, and said what's wrong with that?

And Kneedler's answer was that it was a mandatory nature of the Arizona law. It didn't allow for cooperation, it demands it.

NORRIS: Arizona Governor Jan Brewer was there today. She's a big proponent of this law. What was her role?

ROBBINS: She said she was there because she was a named defendant. The political implications of this are obvious - the day before the election that she's running for governor - and this law has wide support in Arizona.

NORRIS: Ted, what's next?

ROBBINS: Well, I want to make clear, Michele, that this is a hearing - or was hearing about the injunction that barred parts of the law from taking effect. This is not on the constitutionality of the law. At some point, there'll likely be a trial about that. So the appeals court could, in fact, send the parts that were enjoined back to the district court judge to hear again, to hear in a full case.

Whoever loses is going to appeal the injunction to the Supreme Court. It'll be up to the Supreme Court to decide whether to take the whole case or to take the injunction.

NORRIS: Thank you, Ted.

ROBBINS: You're welcome.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Ted Robbins reporting from the federal courthouse in San Francisco.

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