Ariz. immigration bill challenged in lawsuits

Arizona's controversial new illegal immigration law faced its first legal challenges on Thursday, as two lawsuits arguing the legislation is unconstitutional were filed in federal courts.

Arizona’s controversial new law to curb illegal immigration faced its first legal challenges on Thursday, as two lawsuits arguing the legislation is unconstitutional were filed in federal courts.

The National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, which filed its suit in Phoenix, is seeking an injunction to prevent authorities from enforcing the law. The coalition says the law will lead to civil rights violations.

The law will also sanction racial profiling because every police officer will work on the assumption that all Hispanics might be undocumented immigrants, the coalition argues.

The new law, which is expected to go into effect in July or August, will require police to question people about their immigrant status if they have "reasonable suspicion" they are in Arizona illegally.

According to the law, police can only question their immigration status if they first had "lawful contact" with that person, meaning the police have detained someone they suspect of breaking some other law.

Jail possible for offenders

Immigrants unable to produce documents showing they are allowed to be in the United States could be arrested, jailed for up to six months and fined $2,500 US, a significant escalation of the current federal punishment of deportation. It would also be illegal to harbour or transport known illegal immigrants.

The coalition also argues that  immigration is not a state issue and that Arizona not does have the authority to legislate it.

"Every Latino in Arizona will be in harm’s way with this law," said Rev. Miguel Rivera, the group's founder.

Fifteen-year Tucson police veteran Martin Escobar filed his own legal challenge in Tucson, claiming that officers will not be able to confirm people's immigration status without impeding investigations.

The lawsuit alleges the new immigration law violates numerous constitutional rights and could hinder police investigations in Hispanic-prevalent areas.

Other Hispanic and civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, are also planning lawsuits. And U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said the federal government may challenge the law.

Supporters cite safeguards

Those  defending the legislation say the law prevents police from stopping someone randomly. As well, they say, the law makes it clear that police are not permitted to use racial profiling as a basis for their suspicions that someone may be an illegal immigrant.

But critics have countered that the only means by which a police officer would suspect someone is an illegal immigrant is through racial profiling.

At least three Arizona cities — Phoenix, Flagstaff and Tucson — also are considering lawsuits to block the law.

With files from The Associated Press