The judge who will decide whether Arizona's new immigration law is constitutional hasn't indicated whether she'll put the statute on hold before it takes effect next week and had some poignant questions Thursday for challengers at two court hearings.
U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton also went beyond dry legal analysis to point out some of the everyday realities of illegal immigration and how that applies to the new law.
Without prodding from attorneys, the judge noted that the federal government erected signs in a wilderness area south of Phoenix that warn visitors about immigrant and drug smugglers passing through public lands. She said the stash houses where smugglers hide immigrants from Mexico before bringing them into the country's interior have become a fixture on the news in Arizona.
"You can barely go a day without a location being found in Phoenix where there are numerous people being harbored," said Bolton, who didn't issue a ruling after the two hearings.
Bolton has been asked to block the law from taking effect as she hears seven lawsuits by the U.S. Department of Justice, civil rights groups and others that question the constitutionality of the measure, which has reignited the national immigration debate.
Opponents say the law will lead to racial profiling and trample on the rights of the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants in Arizona. Supporters say the law is a necessary response to combat the litany of problems brought on by illegal immigration and the federal government's inability to secure the border.
Bolton, an appointee of former President Bill Clinton, repeatedly questioned Justice Department attorney Edwin Kneedler to explain how specific provisions of the law intruded on federal authority as he had argued.
"Why can't Arizona be as inhospitable as they wish to people who have entered the United States illegally?" she asked.
Kneedler said the law's requirements that law enforcement check on people's immigration status set a mandatory policy that goes beyond what the federal government requires and would burden the federal agency that responds to immigration-status inquiries.
Attorney John Bouma, who is defending the law on behalf of Gov. Jan Brewer, said the federal government wants to keep its authority while turning a blind eye to illegal immigrants.
"You can't catch them if you don't know about them. They don't want to know about them," he said.
Outside of court, seven opponents of the law were arrested after they sat in the middle of a busy thoroughfare and unfurled a massive banner that said "We will not comply."
Some drivers honked their horns as they passed by, before police shut down the street. Some supporters of the law waved signs and clutched American flags, and about a half dozen had handguns hanging from their hips.
Brewer, who attended one of the two hearings, said afterward that she's confident the state will prevail, adding that Bolton "certainly understands the dangers that Arizonans face in regards to harboring illegals."
During one hearing, Bolton told lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union that she is required to consider blocking only parts of the law, not the entire statute as they had requested.
ACLU attorney Omar Jadwat said the law's provisions are supposed to work together to achieve a goal of prodding illegal immigrants to leave the state, calling it unconstitutional and dangerous.
Most of the controversy about the law centers on provisions related to stops and arrests of people, new crimes related to illegal immigrants and a requirement that immigrants carry and produce their immigration papers.
Bouma told Bolton that those challenging the law haven't demonstrated that anyone would suffer actual harm if it takes effect, and that facts — not mere speculation — must be shown.
"In Arizona we have a tremendous Hispanic heritage. To think that everybody that's Hispanic is going to be stopped and questioned ... defies reality," Bouma said. "All this hypothetical that we're going to go out and arrest everybody that's Hispanic, look around. That's impossible."
The law requires officers, while enforcing other laws, to check a person's immigration status if there's a reasonable suspicion that the person is here illegally. It also bans people from blocking traffic when they seek or offer day-labor services on streets and prohibits illegal immigrants from soliciting work in public places.
Since Brewer signed the measure into law in late April, it has inspired rallies in Arizona and elsewhere by advocates on both sides of the immigration debate. Some opponents have advocated a tourism boycott of Arizona.
It also led an unknown number of illegal immigrants to leave Arizona for other U.S. states or their home countries.