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Judge says to rule before July 1 on Georgia immigration law

By David Beasley

ATLANTA (Reuters) - A federal judge heard arguments on Monday for and against Georgia's tough new immigration law and promised to rule before July 1 whether the state can implement the legislation as scheduled.

"The legal and constitutional issues are complex," District Court Judge Thomas Thrash said following Monday's hearing on a motion by civil rights groups to halt the law from going into effect July 1.

Omar Jadwat, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the judge that Georgia's law is deeply flawed and unconstitutional because immigration is a federal, not a state, responsibility.

Georgia's law allows police to question criminal suspects about their immigration status. If they are in the country illegally, they can be detained and transferred to federal authorities. The Georgia law also makes it illegal to knowingly harbor, transport and entice illegal immigrants into the state.

"States cannot directly enforce immigration," Jadwat told the judge. "Immigration law is supposed to be uniform across the states."

Devon Orland, a Georgia assistant attorney general, countered that the state's legislation simply mirrors federal immigration law and is designed to assist the federal government. Georgia spends millions on health care and other services for illegal immigrants and the legislation is an attempt to save the state money, she added.

"The problem you have is the federal government cannot be everywhere," she said. "It gives us the opportunity to help the federal government and mirror the objectives they have."

Thrash asked Orland if under Georgia's new law, an 18-year-old could be arrested for driving his mother, an illegal immigrant, to the grocery store. Orland replied that the 18-year-old could be arrested for that but only if he were first stopped by police on suspicion of committing another crime.

"Sometimes the law is harsh," said Orland. "But that does not make the law unconstitutional."

Georgia is among a growing list of states that have enacted tough immigration laws. Rights organizations have sued to block measures in Georgia, Arizona, Utah and Indiana. They were successful in blocking key parts of the Arizona law, and they have vowed to file suit in Alabama, where the governor signed a new law that supporters and critics alike called the toughest in the nation.

Last week, Mexico and 10 other Latin American countries joined the legal fight against the Georgia law, arguing that the patchwork of state and federal laws make it complicated for Latin American citizens to know what are their rights in the United States.

(Editing by Greg McCune)

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