updated 7/6/2010 4:11:33 PM ET 2010-07-06T20:11:33

The U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Arizona's new law targeting illegal immigrants, setting the stage for a clash between the federal government and the state over the nation's toughest immigration crackdown.

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The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Phoenix argues that Arizona's law requiring state and local police to question and possibly arrest illegal immigrants during the enforcement of other laws such as traffic violations usurps federal authority.

"In our constitutional system, the federal government has pre-eminent authority to regulate immigration matters," the lawsuit says. "This authority derives from the United States Constitution and numerous acts of Congress. The nation's immigration laws reflect a careful and considered balance of national law enforcement, foreign relations, and humanitarian interests."

The government is seeking an injunction to delay the July 29 implementation of the law until the case is resolved. It ultimately wants the law declared invalid.

The government contends that the Arizona law violates the supremacy clause of the Constitution, a legal theory that says federal laws override state laws. It is already illegal under federal law to be in the country illegally, but Arizona is the first state to make it a state crime and add its own punishment and enforcement tactics.

State Sen. Russell Pearce, the principal sponsor of the bill co-sponsored by dozens of fellow Republican legislators, denounced the lawsuit as "absolute insult to the rule of law" as well as to Arizona and its residents.

"It's outrageous and it's clear they don't want (immigration) laws enforced. What they want is to continue their non-enforcement policy," Pearce said. "They ignore the damage to America, the cost to our citizens, the deaths" tied to border-related violence.

State Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a Phoenix Democrat who opposes the law, said the suit should help settle questions over what states can do when they don't think federal laws are being adequately enforced.

"I hope this galvanizes Congress to gain the moral courage they need to address this (immigration) crisis," Sinema said.

Tuesday's action has been expected for weeks. President Barack Obama has called the state law misguided. Supporters say it is a reasonable reaction to federal inaction on immigration.

Gov. Jan Brewer's spokesman called the decision to sue "a terribly bad decision."

"Arizona obviously has a terrible border security crisis that needs to be addressed, so Gov. Brewer has repeatedly said she would have preferred the resources and attention of the federal government would be focused on that crisis rather than this," spokesman Paul Senseman said.

Three of the five Democrats in Arizona's congressional delegation, who are facing tough re-election battles, had also urged Obama not to try to block the law from going into effect.

Republican Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain of Arizona also lashed out at the administration's decision, saying "the American people must wonder whether the Obama Administration is really committed to securing the border when it sues a state that is simply trying to protect its people by enforcing immigration law."

The law requires officers, while enforcing other laws, to question a person's immigration status if there's a reasonable suspicion that they are in the country illegally.

Arizona passed the law after years of frustration over problems associated with illegal immigration, including drug trafficking and violent kidnappings. The state is the biggest gateway into the U.S. for illegal immigrants, and is home to an estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants.

Obama addressed the Arizona law in a speech on immigration reform last week. He touched on one of the major concerns of federal officials, that other states were poised to follow Arizona by crafting their own immigration enforcement laws.

"As other states and localities go their own ways, we face the prospect that different rules for immigration will apply in different parts of the country," Obama said. "A patchwork of local immigration rules where we all know one clear national standard is needed."

The law makes it a state crime for legal immigrants to not carry their immigration documents and bans day laborers and people who seek their services from blocking traffic on streets.

The law also prohibits government agencies from having policies that restrict the enforcement of federal immigration law and lets Arizonans file lawsuits against agencies that hinder immigration enforcement.

Arizona State University constitutional law professor Paul Bender said the federal government's involvement throws a lot of weight behind the argument that federal law pre-empts Arizona's measure.

"It's important to have the federal government's view of whether state law is inconsistent with federal law, and they're the best people to say that," Bender said.

Kris Kobach, the University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor who helped draft the Arizona law, said he's not surprised by the Justice Department's challenge but called it "unprecedented and unnecessary."

He noted that the law already is being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups opposed to the new statute.

"The issue was already teed up in the courts. There's no reason for the Justice Department to get involved. The Justice Department doesn't add anything by bringing their own lawsuit," Kobach said in an interview.

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Video: Fed sues Arizona over immigration law

  1. Transcript of: Fed sues Arizona over immigration law

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: States today sued the state of Arizona . It is about the controversial new immigration law they passed, which is supposed to take effect later this month. Our justice correspondent Pete Williams is at the Justice Department tonight. Pete , good evening.

    PETE WILLIAMS reporting: US v. Arizona . The judge is being asked by the federal government to block this new law before it takes effect July 29th . The Justice Department 's lawsuit targets a brand-new Arizona law requiring police to arrest and detain anyone suspected of being in the state illegally. Though President Obama , Attorney General Holder and Secretary of State Clinton have been criticizing it for months, the lawsuit comes just three weeks before it takes effect. A sponsor of the law condemns the suit as caving to pressure from Mexico .

    And, Brian, the caption on this lawsuit says it all: We have an administration that ignores the damage to this country while they pander to call -- to President Calderon , you know, and ignore -- and ignore their responsibility.

    State Senator RUSSELL PEARCE (Republican, Arizona): But Justice Department lawyers argue in their lawsuit that "a state may not establish its own immigration policy " that interferes with nationwide rules. It says Arizona 's scattershot approach will divert federal attention away from illegal immigrants who threaten public safety or national security. The Constitution and federal laws , the government says, "do not permit the development of a patchwork of state and local immigration policies." What's more, says an immigration lawyer and former federal prosecutor , aggressive state enforcement will swamp an already overwhelmed federal system .

    P. WILLIAMS: Simply put, there aren't enough handcuffs and airplanes and beds to house these individuals that Arizonian state police are going to collect.

    Mr. MICHAEL WILDES (Former Federal Prosecutor): Under the new law, Arizona police making arrests or traffic stops are required to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect is in the country illegally. Those arrested cannot be released until police verify their immigration status by checking with federal authorities. Arizona police insist they are ready for the new responsibility. Just last week the state sent this training video to every police department . The video repeatedly says a person's race cannot be considered.

    P. WILLIAMS: Officers can be assured that nothing about the new law makes racial profiling in any way acceptable.

    Unidentified Man: But the Justice Department argues that Arizona 's new law is too blunt an instrument for enforcing immigration law , which the government says requires considering humanitarian and foreign policy interests, too. Brian :

    P. WILLIAMS: Pete Williams at the Justice Department in Washington tonight. Pete , thanks.

    B. WILLIAMS:

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