A federal judge on Wednesday blocked most of a controversial Arizona immigration law just hours before it was to take effect, handing the Obama administration a win in the first stage of a legal battle expected to end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton in Phoenix issued a temporary injunction against parts of the law that would require police to determine the status of people they lawfully stopped and suspected were in the country illegally.
Bolton also forbade Arizona from making it a state crime to not carry immigration documents, and struck down two other provisions as an unconstitutional attempt by Arizona to undermine the federal government’s efforts to enforce immigration policy.
In her 36-page decision, Bolton wrote that the provisions would have inevitably “swept up” legal immigrants and were “preempted” by the federal government’s immigration authority.
“The court by no means disregards Arizona’s interests in controlling illegal immigration and addressing the concurrent problems with crime,” she wrote. But, she added, “it is not in the public interest for Arizona to enforce preempted laws.”
Gov. Jan Brewer vowed a swift appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. “We would have liked to have seen it all upheld, but a temporary injunction is not the end of it,” she said through a smile after an appearance in Tucson. “I look at this as a little bump in the road.”
Immigrant rights advocates, who had been gearing up for protests after the law takes effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, were ebullient.
“It’s a victory for the community,” said Lydia Guzman, president of Somos America, or We Are America. “It means justice will truly prevail.”
Bolton’s decision came as little surprise to many legal experts, who had predicted that the law, SB 1070, would be halted because it appeared to contradict U.S. Supreme Court precedent. Brewer signed the measure April 23, saying it is needed to protect Arizona from violence and lawlessness associated with illegal immigrants entering the country from Mexico.
Half of all people stopped for entering the country illegally are detained on Arizona’s southern border.
Civil rights groups and then the Obama administration sued, contending that the measure would lead to racial profiling and interfere with the federal government’s ability to regulate immigration. The law would allow Arizona, for example, to prosecute people the federal government might believe have a right to remain in the country, such as asylum seekers.
“While we understand the frustration of Arizonans with the broken immigration system, a patchwork of state and local policies would seriously disrupt federal immigration enforcement and would ultimately be counterproductive,” the Justice Department said in a statement. “States can and do play a role in cooperating with the federal government in its enforcement of the immigration laws, but they must do so within our constitutional framework.”
Many of the parts of the statute that Bolton, an appointee of President Clinton, allowed to go into effect are largely technical. She preserved a clause that forbids any local entity from creating a policy of less than full enforcement of federal immigration laws, as well as a provision that makes it a misdemeanor to block traffic to solicit work or hire a worker -- an effort aimed at getting rid of day laborers.
But she found that the federal government was likely to prevail in trial in its arguments against the other provisions, making it likely that her temporary order will eventually become permanent, said Andy Hessick, a law professor at Arizona State University.
“It would be very surprising if the permanent injunction were to differ after trial,” he said.
The law’s author, state Sen. Russell Pearce, predicted in a television interview that the measure would be upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote -- an allusion to the majority of justices who are Republicans. But Gabriel “Jack” Chin, a law professor at the University of Arizona, said the issue may not break down in a partisan manner in the judiciary.
“I think they’re going to hesitate to say the United States wants to let a person in because he might be able to give us information, but the state of Arizona can arrest him,” Chin said. “For those saying, ‘Wait till the conservative wing of the Supreme Court gets their hands on this,’ I’m not so sure.”
The Supreme Court already will consider another Arizona law this fall. That law dissolves any business that repeatedly and knowingly hires illegal immigrants. The court may signal its view of SB 1070 in that decision.
In Arizona, where the immigration debate has grown to a deafening roar, the discussion was less about legal details and more about how illegal immigration has changed the state.
Faye Yanez, 65, and her husband were leaving a Home Depot in Tucson on Wednesday morning when they heard of the decision. “We feel slighted,” said Yanez, a school teacher. “The state should have a right to take care of the state because the federal government isn’t doing anything.”
Susie Baker, 53, who remodels homes in Tucson, felt differently. “I am thrilled,” she said as she headed into the store. “I think Jan Brewer is out of her mind. She is bringing harm to Arizona.”
Baker said she often hires Latinos on home projects, and doesn’t ask them their immigration status.
“To me, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “They are willing to do the work.”
Politicians’ reactions also were divided largely on whether they supported the bill. It received votes from all Republicans in the state Legislature and no Democrats.
The state’s two Republican U.S. senators, John Kyl -- who recommended Bolton for the federal bench -- and John McCain said in a statement that they were disappointed by the ruling. “Instead of wasting tax payer resources filing a lawsuit against Arizona and complaining that the law would be burdensome, the Obama administration should have focused its efforts on working with Congress to provide the necessary resources to support the state in its efforts to act where the federal government has failed to take responsibility,” they said.
Outside the federal courthouse in Phoenix, Vice Mayor Michael Nowakowski, a Democrat and strong foe of the law, said debate over SB 1070 had been a political sideshow that didn’t make the state safer. He dismissed polls showing a majority of voters in Arizona and in the U.S. back the measure.
“Polls are for politicians before elections; they’re not for civil rights,” said Nowakowski, contending that many civil rights laws would have polled poorly in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Michelle Dallacroce, a Phoenix-based activist against illegal immigration, said she saw a silver lining in the ruling. “About a year or two ago, during the [presidential] elections, the media had a blackout on what was going on regarding illegal immigration,” Dallacroce said.
Now, immigration is constantly on the news. “In 2010,” she said, “Arizona has jump-started this major issue.”
Riccardi reported from Phoenix, Gorman from Tucson. Times staff writer Nicole Santa Cruz in Los Angeles contributed to this report.