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Hearing on Arizona immigration law begins

As the controversial law kicks in, residents and law enforcement officials struggle to make sense of the situation in the town of Benson, Ariz.

"It is not for one of our states to be inhospitable in the way this statute does," Kneedler said, citing as his main argument the legal doctrine of "preemption."

Based on the Constitution's supremacy clause, it says federal law trumps state statutes. Because the federal government has "preeminent authority to regulate immigration matters," the government's lawsuit argues, the Arizona law must be struck down.

Bolton questioned key parts of that argument, especially relating to a section of the law that appears to require immigration-status checks if police stop someone for another law enforcement purpose and suspect the person is an illegal immigrant.

Kneedler said the conflict with federal law comes because the status checks are mandatory, which could lead to federal agencies being overwhelmed with deportation requests. Top officials at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, whose agents will handle most of the calls from Arizona authorities if the law takes effect, have said they will not necessarily respond to every call.

"There really is no flexibility," Kneedler said.

He added that the Arizona law might lead to police harassment of U.S. citizens and is threatening to harm vital cooperation along the border with Mexican authorities, who have strongly condemned the law. "These are very concrete harms, very substantial foreign policy concerns," he said.

Bouma ridiculed the foreign policy concerns.

"Foreign outrage doesn't make the law preempted," he said. He accused the Obama administration of ignoring requests from Brewer and numerous other governors for more help in securing the border.

"You can't catch them if you don't know about them," he said. "And they don't want to know about them."

Bolton is hearing six other lawsuits filed against the Arizona law. A former Arizona state court judge, she was nominated for the federal bench by Democratic President Bill Clinton, but legal observers say she is hard to pigeonhole ideologically.

Outside the gleaming glass-and-white iron courthouse, named for former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, an angry subtext reflected the divide over how to handle the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.

Opponents of the Arizona law clasped hands, prayed and held signs condemning it.

"The law is racist. The police are harassing us because of our brown skin," said Marta Calderon, who sat next to a painting of the Virgin Mary affixed with a sign saying "Stop SB1070," as the immigration law is known.

Nearby, Brandy Baron waved an American flag and expressed her support for the law and her "disgust" at efforts to overturn it.

"I am amazed that the Justice Department would have the nerve to sue us for trying to get laws that are already on the books enforced," she said.

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