A federal judge held off on ruling on a request by civil liberties groups to block Georgia's law cracking down on illegal immigration from taking effect until a legal challenge has been resolved.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash heard arguments Monday from groups seeking to block the law and from lawyers for the state who want the lawsuit dismissed. After the hearing, Thrash said he needs more time to consider the arguments.
The civil liberties groups say the law is unconstitutional. The state says it should be immune from such challenges and that the law is needed.
The Georgia law has some similarities to laws enacted in Arizona and Utah, parts or all of which have already been blocked by federal judges.
The state of Georgia argued that police won’t arrest suspects under the new statute unless they’ve already violated another law. Under sometimes blistering questioning by Judge Thrash, the state also argued the new statute mirrors federal immigration law and therefore isn’t unconstitutional.
Thrash repeatedly asked the state's lawyers to explain the purpose of the law. Senior Assistant Attorney General Devon Orland responded by saying the law intends to preserve the state's resources, and protect the rights of both citizens and illegal immigrants.
Judge Thrash responded by asking, "Do you really expect me to believe that?"
He later said, "You're not answering my question so let's move on."
State legislators and others have said the federal government has failed to rein in illegal immigration, and as a result Georgia's new immigration law is a necessary response to that.
Civil rights groups argued the state can participate in the enforcement of immigration law only when the federal government specifically requests assistance through programs such as 287g. That program is in effect in only a handful of counties in Georgia, and provides training to local police on enforcing federal immigration law.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Omar Jadwat represents the plaintiffs.
“I think the intent of the law is to overrule the federal government and to decide that anyone who Georgia decides is an illegal immigrant is not just someone who should be subject to detention by the state but also someone that everyone else should be afraid to interact with, and that's not how federal immigration law works,” he said after the hearing.
The law allows the police to check the immigration status of some criminal suspects. It will also penalize anyone who knowingly transports or harbors illegal immigrants. And it will require many businesses to use a federal database known as E-Verify to screen out illegal workers.
Some of the law’s supporters say they’ll claim victory as long as the E-Verify portion remains viable.
D.A. King is a longtime advocate for stricter immigration laws.
“The transporting [provision]…I can take it or leave it," he said on the steps of the federal court. "But what we want to do is get to the heart of the root cause of illegal immigration, which is illegal employment, which is a crime."
Judge Thrash but said he hopes to issue a ruling before the law goes into effect on July 1.