Feds sue Utah over illegal immigration enforcement bill

Shurtleff hopes to modify law to end challenge

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 22 2011 5:00 p.m. MST

"They acknowledged there was a different spirit to the bill. It was more prudent and, at the same time, effective," Sandstrom said, blaming political pressure from the Obama administration.


Shurtleff has had a number of meetings with DOJ officials in recent months attempting to head off a lawsuit. He said recently, however, that it was likely that the federal government would intervene in the matter because it was under increasing pressure.

Along with HB497, state lawmakers also approved HB116 in the past legislative session that would establish a guest worker program for illegal immigrants. A group of conservative Republicans is working to repeal the law and replace it.

The ACLU and National Immigration Law Center filed a complaint in May on behalf of several individuals and organizations, including Utah Coalition of La Raza and the Latin American Chamber of Commerce. A temporary restraining order was issued to stop the law from taking effect in mid-May.

"Needless to say we're happy to see the DOJ has joined us," said Joe Cohn, ACLU of Utah interim legal director. "The DOJ has sent a strong message that states should not attempt to try to turn federal immigration policy into state legislation."

Utah is the fourth state the federal government has sued over illegal immigration law. The others are Arizona, Alabama and South Carolina.

And, said Cohn, the Justice Department "has a strong record, so far, of prevailing."

The lawsuit takes note of the number of states that have "attempted to encroach upon the federal government's exclusive authority to regulate immigration."

"This patchwork of inherently contradictory immigration regimes would result in the divergent treatment of aliens across the United States and interfere with the United States' ability to speak with one voice in this highly sensitive area," DOJ attorneys wrote.

Salt Lake immigration attorney Mark Alvarez said he had expected the federal government to intervene in the matter. "The state law clearly infringes on federal prerogative," he said.

Moreover, the state law burdens Immigration and Customs Enforcement with additional duties and "distracts ICE from its fundamental priorities," Alvarez said.

He predicted the matter would be mired in federal court for "a very long time."

"I'm just glad the Department of Justice saw fit to join the suit," he said. "In fact, I hoped for it."

The Department of Justice, in a press release, states that it “will not hesitate to take the legal action necessary to vindicate the important federal interests in this matter before these laws go into effect” if Utah failed to comply with federal law in this area.

The lawsuit itself states that, “In pursuing a ‘Utah solution’ through the Utah immigration statues, the state of Utah has explicitly disregarded Congress’ policies and objectives in favor of its own."

Tony Yapias, director of Proyecto Latino de Utah, lauded the DOJ's decision to intervene.

"We are pleased with the Justice Department joining the lawsuit against HB497 as it sends the message to all the states that immigration is a federal issue and therefore unconstitutional."

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com, marjorie@desnews.com, lisa@desnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy, dnewspolitics

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