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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah will aggressively fight a federal lawsuit attacking the state's controversial immigration enforcement law, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said Tuesday.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed the lawsuit against Utah Tuesday over the law that took effect earlier this year. The federal lawsuit suit claims that HB497 is unconstitutional because it attempts to establish a state immigration policy.
"A patchwork of immigration laws is not the answer and will only create further problems in our immigration system," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.
"The federal government is the chief enforcer of immigration laws, and while we appreciate cooperation from states, which remains important, it is clearly unconstitutional for a state to set its own immigration policy."
Shurtleff said the state was careful to tailor HB497 to reflect recent federal court opinions on other states' immigration enforcement efforts, but there are "one or two minor things they still have some heartburn over" that could be corrected by the Utah Legislature in its next session.
He said he plans to continue to talk with federal authorities about "a few modifications" that could end the challenge.
The lawsuit states that HB497 precludes state and local law enforcement officers in Utah from being able to respond to federal priorities, according to the lawsuit, and “will therefore disrupt the enforcement of federal immigration law.”
It will also “cause the detention and harassment of authorized visitors, immigrants and U.S. citizens, thereby further undermining exclusive federal control over the conditions of residence for lawfully admitted aliens and, potentially, a wide range of U.S. foreign affairs interests and commitments,” the lawsuit states.
Gov. Gary Herbert's general counsel was reviewing the lawsuit, said the governor's spokeswoman, Ally Isom.
"The Legislature worked hard to craft a piece of legislation that would withstand constitutional scrutiny, and we're confident the courts will rule in our favor," Isom said.
Initially modeled after an Arizona law, HB497 requires police to verify the immigration status of people arrested in Utah 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.
The 30-page lawsuit seeks a judgment declaring three sections of HB497 "invalid, null and void."
It also seeks permanent and preliminary injunctions against the state of Utah prohibiting the enforcement of sections 3, 10 and 11 of the law. Section 3 refers to determining immigration status of an individual during a stop or arrest. Section 10 defines and establishes penalties for transporting or harboring "aliens" and Section 11 refers to arrests by police officers.
Tuesday's court action comes after several months of discussions on the new law between state and federal officials, including meetings in Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C. Justice Department officials expect that dialogue to continue, the agency said.
"So much for Shurtleff and the Utah Compact and HB116," said Ron Mortensen, co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration. "They went back there and said, 'We've been nice guys so don't pick on us on this one.'
"It doesn't look like the Utah Compact and HB116 bought off the Obama administration," he said.
Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, sponsor of HB497, said he was disappointed by the filing of the lawsuit. He met with DOJ officials a few weeks ago and said he was "fairly encouraged" then that they would not go forward with the lawsuit because of differences between Utah's law and those that already have been challenged.
"They acknowledged there was a different spirit to the bill. It was more prudent and, at the same time, effective," Sandstrom said, blaming political pressure from the Obama administration.
Utah is the fourth state the federal government has sued over illegal immigration law. The others are Arizona, Alabama and South Carolina.