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.
Utah Latino activists called it a win for civil rights — and called for Utah lawmakers to shelve plans for a similar law.
Tony Yapias, director of Proyecto Latino de Utah and a former state Hispanic affairs director called the decision Wednesday "a victory for civil rights and for Latinos who would have been impacted the most by this harsh law."
He added, "I call on Rep. Stephen Sandstrom to drop this draft bill and instead call on him to work on a comprehensive humane approach to solve our nation's broken immigration laws."
Sandstrom, R-Orem, was on a weeklong vacation, and could not be reached for comment. But earlier this week he told the Deseret News that he plans to release a copy of his Arizona-style bill in early August to allow interim committees of the Legislature to study it.
He has previously said that lawsuits against the Arizona bill would not stop him from pushing his own version of it in the 2011 Utah Legislature.
Wednesday's ruling, coming just hours before the law was to take effect, 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 U.S. Embassy in Mexico City cheered when they heard the news. Arizona's 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 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 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.
At least one group had planned to block access to federal offices, daring officers to ask them about their immigration status.
"I knew the judge would say that part of the law was just not right," said Gisela Diaz, 50, from Mexico City, who came to Arizona 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.
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