By Jacques Billeaud
PHOENIX — A federal judge heard arguments on Thursday morning over whether Arizona's new immigration law should take effect at the end of the month, marking the first major hearing in one of seven challenges to the strict law.
U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton also is considering Gov. Jan Brewer's request to dismiss the challenge filed by Phoenix police Officer David Salgado and the statewide nonprofit group Chicanos Por La Causa.
Bolton began by quickly dismissing Brewer as an individual defendant to the lawsuit, a motion unopposed by Salgado's lawyer. She then began considering whether to dismiss the case.
Bolton said last week that she may not rule on the officer's request to block the law before it takes effect July 29.
Hearings on the six other lawsuits, including one filed by the federal government, are set for next week.
The large ceremonial courtroom at the main federal courthouse in Phoenix was packed with more than 100 spectators as the hearing began. More than a dozen lawyers were in place along two L-shaped tables, evenly divided between each side. The jury box was filled with law clerks for judges who work in the building who came to observe.
Protesters and supporters of the law gathered outside the courthouse amid heavy security.
About two dozen supporters of the law, many dressed in red, white and blue, held up signs praising Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a major backer of the crackdown on illegal immigrants, and one said "American Pride."
About 50 feet away a group opposed to the law held up signs calling for repeal of the law.
The groups competed with each other using bullhorns.
"We demand an injunction. We demand a federal intervention," opponent Sandra Castro of Phoenix, 22, yelled into a bullhorn.
The law requires police, while enforcing other laws, to question a person's immigration status if officers have a reasonable suspicion that the person is in the country illegally.
Supporters say the law was needed because the federal government hasn't adequately confronted illegal immigration in Arizona, the busiest illegal gateway for immigrants into the United States. Opponents say the law would lead to racial profiling and distract from police officers' traditional roles in combating crimes in their communities.
Since Brewer signed the measure into law April 23, it has inspired rallies in Arizona and elsewhere by advocates on both sides of the immigration debate. Some opponents have advocated a tourism boycott of Arizona.
It also led an unknown number of illegal immigrants to leave Arizona for other American states or their home countries and prompted the Obama administration to file a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the law.
Salgado's attorneys argue the judge should block the law before it takes effect because it would require an officer to use race as a primary factor in enforcing the law and because the state law is trumped by federal immigration law.
Attorneys for Brewer asked that the officer's lawsuit be thrown out because Salgado doesn't allege a real threat of harm from enforcing the new law and instead bases his claim on speculation. They also said the state law prohibits racial profiling and that it isn't trumped by federal immigration law because it doesn't attempt to regulate the conditions under which people can enter and leave the country.
The other challenges to the law were filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, civil rights organizations, clergy groups, a researcher from Washington and a Tucson police officer.
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Bolton plans to hold similar hearings July 22 in the lawsuits filed by the federal government and civil rights groups.