Federal judge to hear DOJ's challenge to Utah's immigration enforcement law

Published: Thursday, Feb. 16 2012 2:58 p.m. MST

Utah Governor Gary Herbert signs a package of Immigration bills Tuesday, March 15, 2011 in the Gold room of the State Capitol.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

SALT LAKE CITY — Less than a year after Utah's immigration enforcement bill was signed into law in a formal ceremony in the state Capitol, a federal judge will decide whether to block HB497 from becoming law.

On Friday morning, U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups is scheduled to hear arguments on a motion to keep HB497 from taking effect.

Attorneys representing the Department of Justice and a coalition of civil rights organizations have argued in court documents that the law is unconstitutional because it usurps the federal government's authority to set immigration policy.

Meanwhile, attorneys for the state of Utah have maintained the law is markedly different from other states' immigration laws that have been challenged by the federal government and HB497 should be allowed to go into effect.

Waddoups has also received requests from parties that have filed "friend of the court" briefs that want to address the court.

"We're eager to have this day arrive," said Karen McCreary, executive director of the ACLU of Utah.

"We've really been looking to have this opportunity to put forth the arguments we've been saying and writing about this kind of legislation."

Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, sponsor of HB497, said he plans to attend Friday's hearing.

"I think our law is completely different from other states" that have been challenged by the Department of Justice. "I actually do feel that we'll prevail in court."

Sandstrom said the Obama administration's decision to challenge Utah's law is "unfortunate."

When he and other Utah leaders met with DOJ officials in the fall, Justice Department lawyers said Utah's law was "the most reasonable, most measured approach they had seen of any of the enforcement bills to come out of the states." A few weeks later, the DOJ intervened in the lawsuit, originally filed as Utah Coalition of La Raza v. Herbert.

"They sued more to make a political statement than a matter of practicality," Sandstrom said.

Utah's law is unique from other states' immigration enforcement laws in the respect that it creates no mandates of the federal government.

Sandstrom said HB497 seeks joint efforts between the federal government and state of Utah to enforce existing federal immigration law, no different than the state working with federal agencies to enforce Drug Enforcement Administration laws or to police Internet pornography.

"It's a cooperative effort. That's why it's completely different than what any other state did," he said.

The class-action lawsuit filed by civil rights attorneys in May claims HB497 is unconstitutional and invites racial profiling.

The DOJ, which intervened in the lawsuit in November, has further argued that enforcing the law would inflict "irreparable injury on the United States' ability to manage foreign policy."

The Utah Attorney General's Office, in its response to the DOJ's motion for seeking preliminary injunction of the law, said concerns about a state's law on international policy "are purely speculative and legally irrelevant."

Moreover, Utah's law passes constitutional muster, state attorneys have maintained.

HB497 reflects the state's attempt to "undertake its supporting role in the fight against illegal immigration, within the parameters set by Congress in those statutes. Contrary to the United States' arguments, HB497 does not conflict with Congress' mandate but is entirely consistent with it," state attorneys wrote.

HB497 was passed during the 2011 Legislature session and signed into law in March. The law requires police to verify the immigration status of people arrested for felonies and class A misdemeanors as well as those booked into jail on class B and class C misdemeanors. It also says officers may attempt to verify the status of someone detained for class B and class C misdemeanors.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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