Judge issues split ruling on Utah immigration law

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A federal judge issued a split ruling Wednesday on Utah’s controversial immigration law, upholding one key measure but striking down several others in legislation that was passed in 2011 amid a wave of immigration crackdowns around the country.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups upheld a key provision that requires police work with federal authorities to check the immigration status of people arrested for felonies or certain misdemeanors such as theft, while giving authorities the discretion to check the citizenship of those stopped for traffic infractions and other lesser offenses.

But Waddoups set limits on how it can be implemented. For instance, officers cannot hold a person longer than normal just to wait for federal officials verify immigration status. That means if a person is stopped for a traffic offense that doesn’t require booking, he or she cannot be detained solely because of questions about immigration status.

Those limits, based on detailed guidance issued in 2012 by the Utah attorney general’s office, led immigrant-advocacy groups to claim victory in the ruling.

Waddoups’ ruling struck down a provision that allows warrantless arrests based solely on suspicion of immigration status. He also tossed a part of the law that made it a state crime to harbor a person in the country illegally and one that requires local officers to investigate immigration offenses.

“The ruling is sending a clear message to state and local police that they can’t stop, detain or arrest anyone solely for immigration purposes,” said Jennifer Chang-Newell, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights project.

The ruling comes more than a year after a hearing in the case and more than three years since the law was passed. The measure has been shelved pending a court review.

The ruling shows the tide is turning against these types of state immigration enforcement laws, said Chang-Newell, who helped argue the case in federal court. Provisions in similar laws in Indiana, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama have also been blocked by judges, she said.

Karen Tumlin, managing attorney for the National Immigration Law Center, declared victory after reading the ruling. Her group also helped with the case.

“The decision really is the last across the country to issue a stinging review of the anti-immigration agenda,” Tumlin said.

A spokesman for the Utah governor’s office said they are reviewing the ruling to determine how it impacts legislation passed in 2011. The attorney general’s office had no immediate comment on the ruling. It’s unknown if the state will appeal the ruling.

In his 30-page ruling, Waddoups compared Utah’s key provision to the Arizona measure upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, basing his ruling largely on the higher court’s reasoning.

He said so long as officers follow the parameters for implementation set out in the guidance from the Utah attorney general two years ago, the rule doesn’t violate anyone’s Constitutional rights.

That guidance prohibits officers from trying to verify a person’s immigration status unless they encounter a person in a legal stop, detention or arrest. Officers aren’t required to see any specific type of documentation, but may ask for a driver’s license from Utah or another state, a tribal enrollment card or any ID document that includes photo and a biometric identifier, the document states. It clarifies that people are not required to carry any immigration documentation

“It does not provide an independent basis for stops, detentions or arrests. Nor may a stop, detention, or arrest be prolonged merely to confirm a person’s immigration status,” Waddoups wrote. “Finally, the communication regarding immigration status required does not interfere with federal regulatory schemes because it has been invited and encouraged by the federal government.”

Tony Yapias, immigration reform advocate and director of Proyecto Latino de Utah, praised elements of the ruling but said immigration issues would best be handled on a federal level. “They’re not passing immigration reforms,” he said, referring to Congress. “It puts a lot of pressure on our law enforcement.”

He applauded the judge for striking the warrantless-arrest provision, which he said would have led to racial profiling.

“Police officers aren’t trained to be immigration agents. That’s not their job,” Yapias said. “Their hands are busy enough handling more serious crimes in our community.”

The Utah legislator who pushed the law through, Republican Stephen Sandstrom, is no longer in office. Last year, he said he hoped the federal judge would remove some provisions in the measure, if not the whole thing.

Sandstrom, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress, said he regrets pushing so hard for the measure in 2010; that it was the wrong approach; and that immigration enforcement should focus on immigrants in the country illegally who have committed other crimes.

“At this point, I think it would be best for this country and the state to have him go ahead and overturn it — at least take out parts of it,” Sandstrom told the Salt Lake Tribune in March 2013 after a Republican-sponsored Latino Appreciation Day at the Capitol.

His change of heart, he said, stemmed from a 2011 encounter with a college student brought to the U.S. illegally as a toddler, who told him she had recently graduated high school with good grades but no future. Before that, the Orem Republican spoke at anti-immigration rallies for Arizona’s well-known border hawk, Russell Pearce, and sponsored, rallied and pushed for Utah’s measure.


Associated Press writer Michelle L. Price contributed from Salt Lake City.

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Judge issues split ruling on Utah immigration law
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