PHOENIX – The dismissal of a legal challenge to a new Arizona immigration law doesn't signal the end of the attempts by business and immigrant right groups to overturn provisions punishing employers who knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.
Lawyers for the business groups said Saturday they will continue to try to persuade a federal judge to block enforcement of the law before it takes effect on Jan. 1.
A ruling Friday night by U.S. District Judge Neil Wake said the groups challenging the law sued the wrong government officials.
"He didn't uphold the law. He didn't decide if it was constitutional. We can have that argument another day," said Julie Pace, an attorney for the business groups.
The lawsuit was filed against the governor and state attorney general, who are given only investigatory authority under the law and wasn't aimed at county prosecutors, who actually have the power to enforce the restrictions, Wake's ruling said.
Both the attorney general and county prosecutors will be required to investigate complaints of illegal hirings, but once the attorney general determines that complaints aren't frivolous, he turns them over to county prosecutors.
Pace said her clients plan to file a separate lawsuit against county prosecutors either Sunday or Monday. The business groups also are considering an appeal of Wake's ruling.
The Republican-majority Legislature and Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano approved the law this summer amid frustration over what backers of the restrictions said were weak federal efforts to confront illegal immigration.
The law was intended to lessen the economic incentive for immigrants to sneak across the border and curb Arizona's role as the busiest illegal gateway into the country. An estimated one in 10 workers in Arizona's economy are illegal immigrants.
State Rep. Russell Pearce of Mesa, the author of the law, said he believes the judge would have upheld the constitutionality of the restrictions had the lawsuit been allowed to continue. "The law is legal and will survive challenges," Pearce said.
Under the law, businesses that knowingly hire illegal immigrants could face a business license suspension lasting up to 10 days. Second-time violators would have their business licenses permanently revoked.
The law also requires businesses to use an otherwise voluntary federal database to verify the employment eligibility of new workers.
Wake said the groups showed they would suffer economic harm in complying with the database requirement, noting it would take staff time and thus money to learn the database and use the system.
On another point, the judge concluded the business groups had no legal footing to make the challenge because they hadn't shown that they faced imminent crackdowns.
Promises by Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas — the chief prosecutor in the state's most populous county — to enforce the law applied to all people in his county and didn't single out the groups challenging the law, Wake ruled.
Pace said the business groups believe county prosecutors already have illegal hiring complaints on file.
Thomas, a supporter of the employer sanctions law who has made combating illegal immigration a key part of his tenure, declined comment through his spokesman.
Hector Yturralde, president of the immigrant rights group Somos America, one of the challengers of the law, said immigrant groups would consider filing another lawsuit in the coming year if evidence surfaces that citizens who allege illegal hirings base their complaints on a person's skin color.
"It is going to be racial profiling of Hispanic-Latino workers," Yturralde said.
The ruling focused mostly on whether the business and immigrant rights groups had the legal footing to make the challenge. The judge, however, didn't rule on the core arguments made by business groups.
The business and immigrant groups argued the law was an unconstitutional attempt by the state to regulate immigration and that cracking down on such hirings is the sole responsibility of the federal government.
Attorneys for the state contend the groups weren't reading the law correctly and that it doesn't conflict with federal law.
Critics of the law said it burden employers and poison Arizona's business climate.
Supporters said state punishments were needed because the federal government hasn't adequately enforced a federal law that already prohibits employers from knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.