Phoenix: A federal judge stepped into the fight over Arizona`s immigration law at the last minute on 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 — ensuring that a law that reignited the immigration debate, inspired similar measures nationwide, created fodder for political campaigns and raised tensions with Mexico will stay in the spotlight.
Protesters who gathered at the state Capitol and outside the US 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," Governor Jan Brewer said.
The key issue before US District Judge Susan Bolton in the case 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 labourers.
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.
At least one group had planned to block access to federal offices, daring officers to ask them about their immigration status.
Opponents argued the law will lead to racial profiling, conflict with federal immigration law and distract local police from fighting more serious crimes. The US 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 US gateway for illegal immigrants, match those of the federal government. But, she wrote, that the federal government must take the lead on deciding how to enforce immigration laws.