The lawsuit asks a judge to find the law unconstitutional and to prevent its enforcement. U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash, who was appointed to the bench by President Clinton, also heard arguments from a lawyer for the state, who said the lawsuit should be dismissed. Thrash repeatedly questioned Senior Assistant Attorney General Devon Orland, with the exchange sometimes bordering on testy.
Omar Jadwat, of the American Civil Liberties Union, argued the law is fundamentally unconstitutional and infringes on federal authority, while Orland said the measure is needed because medical facilities and prisons are being strained by illegal immigrants.
Karen Tumlin, from the National Immigration Law Center, said the possible harm the law could inflict on people and organizations is greater than any harm done to the state without the law, so it should be blocked until the courts rule on the merits of the legal challenge.
At the end of the hearing, Thrash said he needs more time to consider the arguments because the legal and constitutional issues at play are complex. He expects to decide on the issue before July 1, when most parts of the law take effect.
"We're optimistic," Jadwat said after the hearing. "The judge seemed to grasp a lot of the practical problems posed by this law."
The attorney general's office said it's waiting for the judge's ruling and declined to comment.
The measure authorizes law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of suspects who cannot provide identification and to detain and hand over to federal authorities anyone found to be in the country illegally. It also penalizes people who, while committing another crime, knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants, and makes it a felony to present false documents or information when applying for a job.
During the hearing, Thrash on more than one occasion told Orland not to interrupt him and said she wasn't answering his questions.
The judge expressed concern that the new law allows individual jurisdictions too much discretion, in effect creating a different policy in every county. He also questioned the motive behind the law. Orland responded that it was to prevent the state from continuing to spend money on illegal immigrants.
Thrash later questioned provisions dealing with people who harbor or transport illegal immigrants, raising a hypothetical scenario of an 18-year-old U.S. citizen who gets pulled over for speeding while driving his mother, an illegal immigrant, to the store.
"It would be no different if his mother had pockets full of cocaine and he was knowingly transporting her to go sell it," Orland said, later adding: "Sometimes the law is harsh. There is no question about that. That does not make it unconstitutional."
Orland also said that other parts of the law would actually protect illegal immigrants from exploitation and that parts of the state policy mirror federal immigration law.
Jadwat argued that the state isn't mirroring federal law because the Georgia law gives local officers such broad enforcement discretion, and that the state is not authorized to enforce certain parts of federal law.
Georgia's law has provisions similar to those in laws enacted in Arizona, Utah and Indiana.
A federal judge blocked the most controversial parts of Arizona's law last year after the U.S. Department of Justice sued, arguing that only the federal government can regulate immigration. A federal appeals court judge upheld the decision, and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has said she plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
A federal judge also has temporarily blocked Utah's law, citing similarities to the most controversial parts of Arizona's law. A hearing is set for mid-July to determine whether the law can take effect. In Indiana, a federal judge on Monday heard arguments on whether that state's law can take effect next month. That judge listened to the arguments and said she'd rule before the law is set to take effect July 1.
Another section of the Georgia law set to be phased in starting in January will require many businesses to check the immigration status of new hires. A separate Arizona law with the same requirement was recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.