By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - A federal judge said on Monday he would decide by the end of 2011 whether to block enforcement of South Carolina's new law curbing immigration, as judges have done with several other state laws.
Judge Richard Gergel heard arguments from attorneys for a coalition of civil rights groups and the U.S. Department of Justice seeking to halt the law going into effect, saying it usurps the federal government's constitutional power to regulate immigration.
Sixteen Latin American countries filed court briefs supporting the U.S. government in the case.
South Carolina is one of a handful of states which have enacted tough new laws curbing immigration in the last two years, citing inaction by the federal government that has left a void in immigration policy.
But federal judges have consistently blocked the attempts, halting key parts of other immigration laws passed in Alabama, Georgia, Arizona, Utah and Indiana.
There are an estimated 11.2 million illegal immigrants in the United States, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
A law passed by the Alabama legislature this year, billed as the toughest state immigration law in the nation, prompted a backlash after a German auto executive was arrested for not carrying proper identification.
"We can see a potential problem here," Judge Gergel said during the hearing on Monday, citing the "Alabama example."
South Carolina's law requires police officers to check if they suspect any person stopped for even a minor traffic violation of being in the country illegally.
It also allows police to determine, in cooperation with the federal government, if the person should be arrested.
The law also makes it a felony for anyone to knowingly harbor or transport an undocumented alien.
A lawyer for the Justice Department, Arthur Goldberg, said the South Carolina law would prevent the United States from speaking with one voice to the world on immigration.
"That's South Carolina's attempt to have its own foreign policy," the judge said in response.
J. Emory Smith Jr., assistant deputy attorney general for the state of South Carolina, defended the new law, saying it is compatible with federal laws.
"Obviously, the state of South Carolina thought that not enough was being done" to curb illegal immigration, Smith said.
Some courtroom spectators during the arguments wore orange ribbons they said symbolized oranges picked by migrant workers in Florida, and racial harmony. Protestant and Catholic bishops held a prayer service outside the courtroom in "pastoral concern for those who will be affected" by the new law, according to a statement. About 250 men, women and children marched in front of the courthouse before the hearing, holding signs and chanting protests against the law.
(Editing by Greg McCune)