By Jacques Billeaud and Paul Davenport
PHOENIX — A federal judge heard arguments Thursday in a packed Phoenix courtroom over whether Arizona's tough new immigration law should take effect next week.
U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton was holding the hearing on whether the law should be put on hold and whether a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups and others challenging it should be dismissed.
About 30 lawyers were in court to represent defendants in the case. There also were about 150 spectators in the courtroom, many in a second-floor gallery.
Defendants include various county officials from throughout the state, most of whom sent lawyers to the hearing. Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever was there in person, however, sitting at the front of the courtroom.
Dever's county is on the Arizona-Mexico border and he knew a rancher who was killed in March on his ranch by a suspected illegal immigrant, possibly a scout for drug smugglers.
The killing of Robert Krentz in many ways set the stage for the new Arizona law to pass, with politicians calling for action amid border violence.
Supporters and opponents of the law demonstrated outside, gathering in prayer before the hearing started.
Sarah Fox, a 64-year-old Phoenix nurse, said the new law takes the country's economic problems out on immigrants, who she believes are being used as a scapegoat.
"It's morally wrong," she said. "I'm getting old and I don't have many years left to speak out against what is wrong."
Debbi MacNicol, a 55-year-old Phoenix psychiatric nurse who carried a gun on her hip and wore a T-shirt that read "Don't Tread on Me," said she supports the law because she fears Mexico's drug war will spill over into Arizona.
"It wasn't as much an issue until it started putting our lives at risk," she said.
Bolton was set to hold another hearing in the afternoon on the U.S. Justice Department's request for a preliminary injunction blocking implementation of the immigration law.
The law requires officers, while enforcing other laws, to check a person's immigration status if there's a reasonable suspicion that the person is here illegally. It also bans people from blocking traffic when they seek or offer day-labor services on streets and prohibits illegal immigrants from soliciting work in public places.
Since Gov. Jan Brewer signed the measure into law on 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 U.S. states or their home countries and prompted seven challenges by the Justice Department, civil rights groups, two Arizona police officers, a Latino clergy group and a researcher from Washington.
Justice Department lawyers contend that local police shouldn't be allowed to enforce the law because, in part, it's disrupting the United States' relations with Mexico and other countries.
Attorneys for Brewer argue that the federal government based its challenge on misconceptions of what the law would do and that Washington's inadequate immigration enforcement has left the state with heavy costs for educating, incarcerating and providing health care for illegal immigrants.
In the challenge by civil rights groups, Brewer and other officials said the lawsuit should be thrown out because the groups don't allege a real threat of harm from enforcing the new law and instead base their claims on speculation.
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The civil rights groups said their clients will suffer imminent harm, such as a social service organization that will have to divert resources from its programs to instead assist those affected by the new law.