PHOENIX – A federal judge stepped into the fight over Arizona’s immigration law at the last minute Wednesday, blocking the heart of the measure and defusing a confrontation between police and thousands of activists that had been building for months.
Coming just hours before the law was to take effect, the ruling isn’t the end.
It sets up a lengthy legal battle that could end up before the Supreme Court.
Protesters who gathered at the state Capitol and outside the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City cheered when they heard the news. The governor, the law’s authors and anti-illegal-immigration groups vowed to fight on.
“It’s a temporary bump in the road,” Gov. Jan Brewer said.
The key issue before U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton is as old as the nation itself: Does federal law trump state law? She indicated in her ruling that the federal government’s case has a good chance at succeeding.
The Clinton appointee said the controversial sections should be put on hold until the courts resolve the issues, including parts that required officers to check a person’s immigration status while enforcing other laws.
In her preliminary injunction, Bolton delayed provisions that required immigrants to carry their papers and banned illegal immigrants from soliciting employment in public places – a move aimed at day laborers.
The judge also blocked officers from making warrantless arrests of suspected illegal immigrants for crimes that can lead to deportation.
“Requiring Arizona law enforcement officials and agencies to determine the immigration status of every person who is arrested burdens lawfully present aliens because their liberty will be restricted while their status is checked,” Bolton wrote.
The ruling came just as police were making last-minute preparations to begin enforcement of the law and protesters, many of whom said they would not bring identification, were planning large demonstrations against the measure.
“I knew the judge would say that part of the law was just not right,” said Gisela Diaz, 50, who came to Arizona from Mexico City on a since-expired tourist visa in 1989 and who waited with her family early Wednesday at the Mexican Consulate to get advice about the law.
“It’s the part we were worried about. This is a big relief for us,” she said.
At a Home Depot in west Phoenix, where day laborers gather to look for work, Carlos Gutierrez said he was elated when a stranger drove by and yelled the news: “They threw out the law! You guys can work!”
“I felt good inside,” said the 32-year-old illegal immigrant, who came here six years ago from Sonora, Mexico, and supports his wife and three children. “Now there’s a way to stay here with less problems.”
Opponents argued the law will lead to racial profiling, conflict with federal immigration law and distract local police from fighting more serious crimes. The U.S. Justice Department, civil rights groups and a Phoenix police officer asked for Wednesday’s injunction.
Lawyers for the state contend the law was a constitutionally sound attempt by Arizona to assist federal immigration agents and lessen border woes, such as the heavy costs for educating, jailing and providing health care for illegal immigrants.
They said Arizona shouldn’t have to suffer from a broken immigration system when it has 15,000 officers who can arrest illegal immigrants.
In her ruling, Bolton said the interests of Arizona, the busiest U.S. gateway for illegal immigrants, match those of the federal government. But, she wrote, the federal government must take the lead on deciding how to enforce immigration laws.
Mexico Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinoza called the ruling “a first step in the right direction” and said staff at the five Mexican consulates in Arizona will work extra hours in the coming weeks to educate migrants about the law.
“None of this is very surprising,” said Kevin R. Johnson, an immigration expert and the law school dean at University of California at Davis. “This is all very much within the constitutional mainstream.”
The remaining provisions, many of them revisions to an Arizona immigration statute, took effect today.
Brewer spokesman Paul Senseman said the state will appeal Bolton’s ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco today, asking the appellate court to lift the injunction and allow the blocked provisions to take effect.
Whatever way that court rules, Bolton will eventually hold a trial and issue a final ruling.