Reporting from Phoenix —
Attorneys on Thursday filed the first lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of a new Arizona law that makes it a state crime to lack proper immigration papers and requires local police to determine whether people are in the country legally.
The National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders sued in U.S. District Court, arguing that the law is an unconstitutional intrusion into the federal government's ability to regulate immigration and that it would lead to racial profiling. Two police officers — one from Tucson, one from Phoenix — filed separate suits.
And the American Civil Liberties Union and Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or MALDEF, which successfully overturned California's 1994 anti-illegal-immigrant ballot initiative Proposition 187, held a raucous news conference outside the state Capitol promising their own lawsuit.
The clerical coalition seeks an injunction to keep the law from going into effect this summer.
"The national clergy felt it was time to move immediately," attorney Ben Miranda, representing the religious group, said at a news conference outside the federal courthouse in Phoenix. "There's a need to calm fears that are out there."
The law's authors scoffed at the challenge. State Rep. John Kavanagh noted that the ACLU and MALDEF had so far failed to overturn two prior Arizona laws, one requiring proof of citizenship for voting and the other dissolving any business that knowingly hires illegal immigrants more than once. The latter case is before the U.S. Supreme Court.
"These are hollow arguments," Kavanagh said. "It's wishful thinking that this law is unconstitutional."
Signed by Gov. Jan Brewer last week, the measure is scheduled to take effect 90 days after the end of Arizona's legislative session. On Thursday night, legislators debated various revisions to the law.
Thursday's legal offensive was partly aimed at assuring the state's panicked immigrant community that the law will never take effect.
"We have seen laws like this before, in other states, and they have been struck down," Thomas Saenz of MALDEF said at the news conference, surrounded by cheering supporters who included singer and Arizona native Linda Ronstadt.
At one of the news conferences, longtime Latino civil rights activist Dolores Huerta spoke in Spanish directly to fearful Arizona immigrants. "Don't leave," she said, promising a political backlash that would unseat politicians who passed the bill. "Stay here."
Tensions continued to rise over the law, the toughest state measure against illegal immigration in the country. A New York congressman said Major League Baseball should move its 2011 All-Star game out of Phoenix. Denver's public school system banned travel to Arizona, saying it feared employees could be racially profiled. Legislators in Oklahoma and Texas said they would introduce similar measures in their states. And about 40 demonstrators gathered outside Wrigley Field in Chicago, where the Arizona Diamondbacks began a four-game series, and called for a boycott of Arizona sports teams.
The law makes it a state crime to lack proper immigration documents and requires police to enforce it if they form a "reasonable suspicion" that someone could be in the country illegally. There are exceptions to allow officers to ignore this mandate if it is impractical or impedes an investigation.
Kavanagh accused civil rights groups of exaggerating the impact of the law. A former police officer, he contended it would be used only as part of an officer's normal questioning during routine events like traffic stops. "This law is the application of a nearly half-century policing tool," the ability to ask simple questions during stops, Kavanagh said. "We're only extending it to illegal immigration."
But critics note that the law allows citizens to sue if they believe police are not enforcing it and that its sponsors, including Kavanagh, touted it as a way to drive illegal immigrants from the state.
Arizona law enforcement is divided. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a prominent supporter, on Thursday launched one of his regular "sweeps," with deputies fanning out in high-immigrant neighborhoods, stopping people for minor infractions and asking about their immigration status.
At a news conference, Arpaio said his deputies caught 26 illegal immigrants in a car being driven out of Phoenix and 10 other people on outstanding warrants or other violations. He called criticism of the new law "hype."
But the sheriff in Pima County, which includes Tucson, has attacked the law as "stupid" and "racist."
"If I were a Hispanic person in the state, I would be humiliated and angered," Clarence Dupnik said at a news conference Wednesday.