A federal judge on Wednesday blocked key parts of Arizona’s tough new immigration law one day before it was to take effect, setting up a protracted legal battle and ensuring the issue will continue to roil the country through November’s elections.
Judge Susan R. Bolton, sitting in Phoenix, in a preliminary injunction sided with the Obama administration by ruling that the law would overwhelm the federal government and could hurt legal immigrants and U.S. citizens. Arizona’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer, vowed to file an expedited appeal and said she will “battle all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary, for the right to protect the citizens of Arizona.”
The judge’s ruling could put the brakes on efforts in a number of other states to pass similar laws, but in the near term it exposed the sharp division between much of official Washington, which praised the decision, and the rest of the country, where polls show Arizona’s law is popular and the Justice Department’s lawsuit is not.
Judge Bolton, who was appointed by President Clinton in 2000, said that requiring police to check the immigration status of those they arrest or whom they stop and suspect are in the country illegally would overwhelm the federal government’s ability to respond, and could mean legal immigrants are wrongly arrested.
“Federal resources will be taxed and diverted from federal enforcement priorities as a result of the increase in requests for immigration-status determination that will flow from Arizona,” she wrote in her 36-page injunction order.
She blocked a part of Arizona’s law that would require police to check the immigration status of anyone they stopped whom they suspected of being in the country illegally, and a second provision that required legal immigrants to carry proof of residency.
The judge did leave in place a penalty for anyone who transports or harbors illegal immigrants or encourages illegal entry into Arizona, and upheld requirements that mandate that state officials cooperate with federal authorities to remove illegal immigrants.
The Arizona law, signed by the governor in April, has become a major dividing point in the national immigration debate.
The administration argues that it has poured resources into security along the border with Mexico and that the region is safer now than ever before.
But Judge Bolton noted at the outset of her ruling the “escalating drug- and human-trafficking crimes” that have dominated news reports and led to increased calls for better border security.
In Washington, the House was poised late Wednesday to debate a bill to spend more than $700 million to hire more U.S. Border Patrol agents and fund technology to catch illegal immigrants.
Polls suggest voters want more immigration enforcement and have found nationwide support for Arizona’s law.
But the administration has vehemently fought the law, arguing it is unconstitutional because only the federal government can write immigration rules. Hispanic groups in the U.S. and Mexican President Felipe Calderon also have attacked the statute.
Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinoza told the Associated Press that the ruling was “a first step in the right direction” and said staff at the five Mexican consulates in Arizona will work extra hours in coming weeks to educate migrants about the law.
Arizona argued that it was trying to aid the federal government in weeding out illegal immigrants, but Judge Bolton said the national system of immigration laws is complex and has various purposes that the state law couldn’t take into account.
As one example, she cited legal visitors from so-called “visa waiver” countries, who are allowed to enter the U.S. without obtaining visas. She said they would not have proof of their status readily available and could be subject to arrest.
She also struck down part of the law that said police may not release those they have arrested without first checking on their immigration status. Arizona argued that was meant to apply to those for whom there is reasonable suspicion that they are in the country illegally, but Judge Bolton said the law isn’t written that way.
Judge Bolton’s ruling is silent on whether the law would lead to racial profiling, an argument made by leading Hispanic groups. The judge noted such concerns in passing, but she did not come to any conclusions.
President Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. initially said that racial profiling would be a major problem if the Arizona law took effect, but the lawsuit the Justice Department filed focused instead on issues of state power and federal pre-emption.
Federal lawyers argued Arizona’s law would lead to a patchwork of immigration rules across the country.
Mrs. Brewer has argued that her state is being singled out. She said so-called “sanctuary cities,” which limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities, violate a 1996 federal law that requires information-sharing.
A Rasmussen Reports poll released Tuesday found that most Americans think the government should crack down on sanctuary cities. The Justice Department has said it will review any new sanctuary city policies, but has not said it will review existing policies in hundreds of localities.
Mrs. Brewer, who is up for election in November, has seen a boost in her standing in Arizona since she signed the legislation. In a statement after Wednesday’s ruling, she said the law is already moving the national debate.
“We have already made some progress in waking up Washington. But the question still remains: Will Washington do its job and put an end to the daily operations of smugglers in our nation, or will the delays and sidesteps continue?” Mrs. Brewer said. “I believe that the defenders of the rule of law will ultimately succeed with us in our demand for action.”
Attorney General Terry Goddard, her likely Democratic opponent in the election, said Wednesday: “Jan Brewer played politics with immigration, and she lost. Rather than providing the leadership Arizona needs to solve the immigration problem, Jan Brewer signed a bill she could not defend in court, which has led to boycotts, jeopardized our tourism industry and polarized our state.”
Mr. Goddard opposed the law, though he said as attorney general he would defend it in court, but Mrs. Brewer removed him from the case and instead used outside attorneys.
Immigrant rights groups said the ruling restores the proper role of the federal government in setting immigration policies, and that they hoped it cleared the political space for lawmakers to pursue a broad legalization bill for illegal immigrants.
“Americans want a functioning immigration system and don’t want a country torn apart by fear, frustration and anger,” said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. “Arizona goes in exactly the wrong direction; now’s the time to set things right. While we await a final ruling on the Arizona law, we can’t afford to wait any longer for Washington to take on the task it alone can assume.”
Mr. Obama recently called for Congress to take up a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration system, but there appears to be little chance of action before lawmakers adjourn ahead of the November midterm elections.
Some Arizona sheriffs said Judge Bolton’s decision amounts to a “de facto amnesty” because it halts the best chance at enforcing immigration laws.
“The ACLU and Justice Department are playing politics in demanding that law enforcement not act to protect the public, but failing to do anything about our illegal crossing issue,” Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever and Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said in a statement.
“It is putting our deputies and the families we’ve sworn an oath to protect in harm’s way, and we need the government to stop the lawsuits and start taking corrective action. Help us, don’t sue us,” they said.