The fate of Arizona's tough new law aimed at combating illegal immigration is tonight being decided at a packed courthouse in downtown Phoenix, as Barack Obama's Justice Department sought a last-minute injunction to prevent the controversial legislation from being implemented.
Judge Susan Bolton cross-examined lawyers representing both supporters and opponents of Senate Bill 1070, which instructs police to stop, question, and potentially deport anyone they "reasonably suspect" of being an undocumented migrant. Her final ruling is expected imminently, since the law takes effect on Thursday morning.
In a theatrical hearing, interrupted by a noisy protest outside the building, Judge Bolton gave conflicting clues as to her thinking on whether the Bill, which makes it a State crime to lack proper immigration documents, is at odds with civil liberties enshrined in the US Constitution.
At one point, she forced lawyers for the Bill's supporters to concede defeat in efforts to convince her that an individual State, rather than the Federal Government, should be responsible for creating its immigration registration system. A recent Supreme Court ruling meant otherwise, she declared.
Yet at another point, Judge Bolton seemed sympathetic key elements of the contentious law, including one which would make transporting an illegal immigrant your vehicle a crime. Noting that Phoenix is a hub of human trafficking, she asked: "Isn't this a public safety and welfare issue?"
The ongoing court case is now on the front line of an ugly dispute which began in April when 1070 was signed by Arizona's right-wing Governor Jan Brewer. It pits Arizona's white, conservative majority against a Hispanic community which makes up 30 percent of the State's 6.5 million inhabitants.
Supporters of the Bill claim that people who unlawfully cross the border from neighbouring Mexico are responsible for drug trafficking and petty crime, and accuse them of clogging-up beds in hospital emergency wards, taking places in schools, and placing a strain on other public services.
Opponents point out that the number of illegal immigrants in Arizona has actually fallen by 100,000, to roughly 460,000, in the last two years and crime levels across the state are at their lowest levels in decades. Many sectors of the economy are reliant on the casual workforce, they add.
More importantly, opponents say the Bill – which has been criticised by the White House, civil liberties groups, and the governments of Mexico, Ecuador, and Argentina - smacks of intolerance and will legitimise police harassment of the State's Hispanic community, who fear being stopped and questioned because of the colour of their skin.
Several hundred protestors have been outside the Phoenix courthouse all week, banging drums and waving banners in a show of anger which suggests that the law's implementation could be marred by civil disobedience. Police have already arrested seven demonstrators for blocking traffic.
Legal analysts preduict that Judge Bolton's eventual judgement could strike down some elements of Senate Bill 1070, but allow others to stand. That would leave neither side particularly happy, but it might add weight to the Obama administration's argument that the US needs to urgently reform its immigration system, which has left the country with an estimated 10 million illegal residents.Reuse content