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Arizona Immigration Law Could Overwhelm Court System, Lawyers Say

PHOENIX -- Arizona's impending crackdown on illegal immigrants has the potential to overwhelm the state's court system with criminal and civil cases once enforcement begins, two Arizona immigration lawyers say.

Without accompanying immigration reform to make following the rules more practical, enforcement could triple the number of cases almost overnight, with no additional court staffing or money to accommodate them, lawyers Maria V. Jones and Kara Hartzler said.

In addition, the law's enactment would place individual members of law enforcement in the precarious position of being vulnerable to lawsuits regardless of how strictly or leniently they applied the new rules, the lawyers said.

Arizona's immigration law makes it a state crime to be in the country illegally. It states that an officer engaged in a lawful stop, detention or arrest shall, when practical, ask about a person's legal status when reasonable suspicion exists that the person is in the U.S. illegally.

The controversial new law was signed April 23 by Gov. Jan Brewer and is scheduled to take effect July 29. But the law already faces a number of legal challenges even before it has taken effect.

Jones and Hartzler said its implementation will create the legal-system equivalent of stepping into a minefield.

It could take years' worth of case law, as complaints and challenges are adjudicated, to fine-tune some of the law's more ambiguous and legally onerous provisions, said Jones, chairwoman of the bar association's Immigration Law Section and owner of the Law Offices of Maria V. Jones in Phoenix.

"We already have a backlog of cases," Jones said. "I think it's going to triple."

Hartzler, who is based in Florence, Ariz., said an unusual provision of the law that allows residents to sue their local government for not enforcing it strictly enough could place law-enforcement officials in a no-win situation.

If police are too aggressive about detaining people who lack proof of citizenship, as they would be authorized to do, it's inevitable that they would end up arresting and holding a number of U.S. citizens, which Hartzler said is bound to generate wrongful-arrest lawsuits.

If they are too careful about whom they detain, she said, police would open themselves up to lawsuits claiming they failed to adequately enforce the new law.

"I don't envy them at all," said Hartzler, director of the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project.

Jones, a legal immigrant from Russia, said she does not favor amnesty for illegal immigrants but thinks existing rules and circumstances discourage many from following the legally-sanctioned process toward legal status or U.S. citizenship.

For one, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has an 18-year backlog of applications to process, she said.

In addition, penalties for nonresidents who break the rules are impractical and make it virtually impossible for many would-be citizens to immigrate legally, Jones said.

Federal law states that any noncitizen caught lying about his or her legal status after 1996 while attempting to cross into the U.S. is barred from legal naturalization for life.

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