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Justice department challenges Utah immigration law

SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department sued on Tuesday to stop a Utah immigration law that sought to crack down on illegal immigrants in the state and create a guest worker program, arguing that the measure preempted federal authority.

The department said in its complaint that several provisions of the state's law, signed by Republican Governor Gary Herbert in March, were preempted by federal law and could lead to the harassment of those immigrants in the state legally.

"The law creates and mandates immigration enforcement measures that interfere with the immigration priorities and practices of the federal government in a way which is not cooperative with the primary federal role in this area," the department said in a news release.

"The law's mandates on law enforcement could lead to harassment and detention of foreign visitors and legal immigrants who are in the process of having their immigration status reviewed in federal proceedings," it added.

Immigration, particularly what to do with an estimated 11.2 million undocumented immigrants living and working in the United States, is a divisive political issue.

The Justice Department previously challenged immigration laws passed by Arizona, Alabama and South Carolina, and continues to review immigration-related laws that were passed in Indiana and Georgia.

"This kind of legislation diverts critical law enforcement resources from the most serious threats to public safety and undermines the vital trust between local jurisdictions and the communities they serve," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a statement.

"The Department will continue to enforce federal immigration laws in Utah in smart, effective ways that focus our resources on criminal aliens, recent border crossers, repeat and egregious immigration law violators and employers who knowingly hire illegal labor," she added.

The department said the lawsuit came after several months of constructive discussions with Utah state officials. Notwithstanding the lawsuit, department officials expected the dialogue to continue.

Courts have enjoined key parts of the Arizona, Alabama, Georgia and Indiana state laws and temporarily restrained enforcement of Utah's law.

Governor Herbert's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)

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