Utah sued by ACLU over illegal immigration enforcement law

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SALT LAKE CITY — Alicia Cervantes fears Utah's new illegal immigration enforcement law will subject her to police questioning because she is Latina.

A U.S. citizen born in Utah, Cervantes also believes the passage of HB497 has already led to anti-immigrant sentiment in the state. Recently, her daughter's classmates have said things such as "Send the Mexicans home."

For those reasons, Cervantes signed on as a plaintiff in a federal class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday against the state of Utah over the law set to take effect May 15. It argues the measure is unconstitutional and will lead to racial profiling.

This law has been wildly misrepresented as a kinder, gentler version of Arizona's discriminating law. But the truth is, this ill-conceived law is just as harsh, turning Utah into a police state where everyone is required to carry their ‘papers’ to prove they are lawfully present.

–Karen McCreary, ACLU of Utah executive

The ACLU and National Immigration Law Center filed the complaint on behalf several individuals and organizations including Utah Coalition of La Raza and the Latin American Chamber of Commerce. Lawyers this week intend to seek an injunction in U.S. District Court to stop the law from being enforced, said Karen McCreary, ACLU of Utah executive director.

In the meantime, the Department of Justice sounds more and more like it might sue the state over the package of illegal immigration bills the Legislature approved this year. The federal government has already gone to court to stop Arizona's enforcement law.

In a committee meeting Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said if Utah doesn't make some adjustments, the DOJ would probably have to take action, according to Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.

That caught Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff off guard because he met with DOJ attorneys last week to go over the bills point by point.

"I was hoping that we had them convinced to wait," he said.

Shurtleff said he was encouraged that Holder appears willing let the state make changes to the measures. HB116, the most controversial of the Utah bills, doesn't take effect until summer of 2013.

On HB497, however, the ACLU chose to go to court now because the law is scheduled to be enforced this month.

McCreary contends it will turn Utah into a "show-me-your-papers" state. And she said though billed as kinder, gentler version of Arizona's law, it is substantively the same.

Juan Manuel Ruiz, president of the Latin American Chamber of Commerce, called HB497 "a harassing law for the Hispanic community and others who look foreign. … If you don't look very mainstream, you will have to worry about this law."

The law requires police to verify the immigration status of people arrested for felonies and class A misdemeanors and those booked into jail on class B and class C misdemeanors. It also says officers may attempt to verify the status of someone detained for class B and class C misdemeanors.

Initially modeled after the Arizona law, the bill started out as HB70 sponsored by Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, and was the source of contentious debate before and during the legislative session.

Sandstrom revised the measure during the session to give police officers more enforcement discretion. At the urging of GOP leadership, the bill was renumbered as HB497 in hopes of shedding its "Arizona-style" label.

Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, a staunch supporter of the bill, called the ACLU lawsuit "politically motivated" and says it lacks merit. Sandstrom, he said, removed provisions that the federal government found objectionable in the Arizona bill.

It's interesting, he said, that the ACLU is taking on a bill that didn't raise constitutional questions among legislative attorneys, while leaving alone those that did, including HB116.

"Their focus on civil rights is a pretty narrow focus if it doesn't include everyone," Herrod said.

McCreary said the ACLU is challenging HB497 because it is scheduled to become law soon.

Referring to Utah's law as "Arizona lite," Shurtleff said it does not pressure police officers to pull people over or stop jaywalkers to ask about immigration status.

"We believe it's entirely defensible and we will defend it," said Shurtleff, who along with Gov. Gary Herbert are named as defendants in the lawsuit.


Story written by Dennis Romboy with contributions from Andrew Adams.

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