A federal judge said Friday he will decide within the next few days whether to allow Utah's immigration enforcement law to go into effect or delay his decision until after the U.S. Supreme Court rules on a similar law in Arizona.
If U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups decides to wait, the law created by House Bill 497 will remain on hold for about another six months. It was first blocked by Waddoups eight months ago, 14 hours after it went effect.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments about Arizona's contentious enforcement law in April and is expected to issue a ruling in June. Waddoups said that ruling could provide some guidance about the constitutionality of Utah's law, which would allow police to check the citizenship of anybody they arrest but doesn't require police to check the citizenship of everybody they encounter.
Arguments during the lengthy and often technical hearing Friday focused mostly on whether the state was usurping federal authority over immigration. Civil rights groups also claim the law violates constitutional protections against unlawful searches and arrests.
Waddoups pressured state attorneys to explain how Utah can justify reaching beyond existing federal laws to make it a crime for an illegal immigrant to enter the state. U.S. Justice Department attorneys, meanwhile, were pressed about what would stop the state from requesting information about a person's immigration status.
Justice Department attorney Josh Wilkenfeld said Utah was attempting to trump federal law by mandating that police officers check the immigration status of anybody booked into jail. He said similar laws in four other states _ Arizona, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina _ have already been struck down by federal judges.
"Cooperation is on federal terms, not as the state defines it," Wilkenfeld said.
Utah's law is much different than the Arizona measure because it gives more discretion to police officers and doesn't allow suspected illegal immigrants to be detained indefinitely, Utah Assistant Attorney General Barry Lawrence said. Instead, the law simply reflects existing federal law and is only meant to ensure that the state can account for criminals who are also illegal immigrants, he said.
"This is not anywhere as invasive as people fear," Lawrence said. "The basic goal is to stop people from committing crimes in the state and quantify how many of those crimes are being committed by illegal aliens."
About 50 people protested the enforcement law outside of the courthouse, and one person was escorted from courtroom after he held up a sign opposing the law.
The American Civil Liberties Union and National Immigration Law Center sued a week before Utah's law went into effect to stop the implementation of House Bill 497, saying it could lead to racial profiling. The Justice Department joined the lawsuit in November, claiming the measure usurped federal authority.
The Utah law, signed in March by Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, would require police to check the citizenship status of anyone arrested on suspicion of a felony or class-A misdemeanor, while giving authorities discretion to check the citizenship of those stopped for traffic infractions and other lesser offenses. Class A misdemeanors include theft, negligent homicide and criminal mischief, while felonies range from aggravated burglary to rape and murder.
Herbert has maintained the law will eventually be found constitutional.
Utah lawmakers passed a package of immigration bills last year, including HB 497 and another bill that will allow illegal immigrants to live and work in the state if they haven't committed other crimes, have steady employment and pay taxes. That law takes effect in 2013 and the state is working with federal officials in an attempt to secure a waiver.
Josh Loftin can be reached at http://twitter.com/joshloftin