Justice Department sues Utah over immigration law

November 22, 2011 - 7:15 PM

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging Utah's immigration enforcement law, arguing that it usurps federal authority and could potentially lead to the harassment and detention of American citizens and authorized visitors.

"The federal government has the ultimate authority to enforce federal immigration laws and the Constitution does not permit a patchwork of local immigration policies," Justice Department officials said in a statement. "A state setting its own immigration policy interferes with the federal government's enforcement efforts."

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Salt Lake City's U.S. District Court after months of negotiations between Justice Department attorneys, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and the state's elected leaders. Justice officials said they plan to continue those discussions despite the lawsuit.

Even with the federal intervention, state officials remained confident the law would eventually be sustained.

"The Legislature worked diligently to craft a law that would pass constitutional muster," said Ally Isom, spokeswoman for Gov. Gary Herbert. "We hope the courts do the right thing."

The Utah law, signed by Herbert in March, requires people to prove their citizenship if they're arrested for serious crimes ranging from certain drug offenses to murder. It also gives police discretion to check citizenship on traffic infractions and other lesser offenses.

Civil rights groups filed a lawsuit earlier this year, and a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order in May against the law, House Bill 497.

A hearing on that lawsuit is scheduled for Dec. 2.

Linton Joaquin, general counsel with the National Immigration Law Center, said that hearing may be delayed because of the federal lawsuit. The NILC, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, is handling the original lawsuit against the state.

The federal lawsuit "reinforced the claims we've been making all along," Joaquin said. "The Utah law is preempted by federal law and is unconstitutional."

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Josh Loftin can be reached at http://twitter.com/joshloftin.