PHOENIX (AP) — A federal judge stepped into the fight over Arizona's immigration law at the last minute Wednesday, blocking the heart of the measure and defusing a confrontation between police and thousands of activists that had been building for months.
Coming just hours before the law was to take effect, the ruling isn't the end.
It sets up a lengthy legal battle that could lead to the Supreme Court — ensuring that a law that reignited the immigration debate, inspired similar measures nationwide, created fodder for political campaigns and raised tensions with Mexico will stay in the spotlight.
Protesters who gathered at the state Capitol and outside the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City cheered when they heard the news.
Arizona's governor and anti-illegal immigration groups vowed to fight on.
Republican Gov. Jan Brewer said the state likely will appeal the ruling and seek to get the judge's order overturned. "It's a temporary bump in the road," she said.
The Obama administration, one of the litigants in the case, opposes the state legislation on grounds it usurps federal authority over immigration policy, and praised the judge's order saying Arizona and other states must operate "within our constitutional framework."
U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton will now have to decide a question as old as the nation itself: Does federal law trump state law? She indicated in her ruling that the federal government's case has a good chance at succeeding.
Bolton said the controversial sections should be put on hold until the courts resolve the issues, including sections that required officers to check a person's immigration status while enforcing other laws.
In her temporary injunction, Bolton delayed provisions that required immigrants to carry their papers and banned illegal immigrants from soliciting employment in public places — a move aimed at day laborers.
The judge also blocked officers from making warrant-less arrests of suspected illegal immigrants for crimes that can lead to deportation.
"Requiring Arizona law enforcement officials and agencies to determine the immigration status of every person who is arrested burdens lawfully present aliens because their liberty will be restricted while their status is checked," Bolton wrote.
The ruling came just as police were making last-minute preparations to begin enforcement of the law and protesters, many of whom said they would not bring identification, were planning large demonstrations against the measure.
At least one group had planned to block access to federal offices, daring officers to ask them about their immigration status.
At a Home Depot in west Phoenix, where day-laborers gather to look for work, Carlos Gutierrez said he was elated when a stranger drove by and yelled the news: "They threw out the law! You guys can work!"
"I felt good inside" said the 32-year-old illegal immigrant, who came here six years ago from Sonora, Mexico, and supports his wife and three children. "Now there's a way to stay here with less problems."
Opponents argued the law will lead to racial profiling, conflict with federal immigration law and distract local police from fighting more serious crimes. The U.S. Justice Department, civil rights groups and a Phoenix police officer asked for Wednesday's injunction.
Lawyers for the state contend the law was a constitutionally sound attempt by Arizona to assist federal immigration agents and lessen border woes, such as the heavy costs for educating, jailing and providing health care for illegal immigrants.
They said Arizona shouldn't have to suffer from a broken immigration system when it has 15,000 officers who can arrest illegal immigrants.
In her ruling, Bolton said the interests of Arizona, the busiest U.S. gateway for illegal immigrants, match those of the federal government. But, she wrote, that the federal government must take the lead on deciding how to enforce immigration laws.
The core of the government's case is that federal immigration law trumps state law — an issue known as "pre-emption" in legal circles. In her ruling, Bolton pointed out five portions of the law where she believed the federal government would likely succeed on its claims.
About 100 protesters in Mexico City who had gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy broke into cheers when they learned of Bolton's ruling. They had been monitoring the news on a laptop computer.
"Migrants, hang on, the people are rising up!" they chanted.
Mexico's Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinoza called the ruling "a first step in the right direction" and said staff at the five Mexican consulates in Arizona will work extra hours in coming weeks to educate migrants about the law.
"None of this is very surprising," said Kevin R. Johnson, an immigration expert and the law school dean at University of California at Davis. "This is all very much within the constitutional mainstream."
Supporters took solace that the judge kept portions of the law intact, including a section that bars local governments from limiting enforcement of federal immigration laws. Those jurisdictions are commonly known as "sanctuary cities."
"Striking down these sanctuary city policies has always been the No. 1 priority," said Republican Sen. Russell Pearce, the law's chief author.
The remaining provisions, many of them procedural and revisions to an Arizona immigration statute, will take effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday.