Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Federal Government Sues Over Arizona Immigration Law

Published: July 6, 2010

The Justice Department filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against Arizona to challenge a new state law designed to combat illegal immigration, arguing it would undermine the federal government’s pursuit of terrorists, gang members and other criminal immigrants.

The suit, filed in federal court in Phoenix, had been expected since mid-June, when Obama administration officials first disclosed they would contest Arizona directly, adding to several other suits seeking to strike down the law.

The federal government added its weight to the core argument in those suits, which contend that the Arizona law usurps powers to control immigration reserved for federal authorities. The main one of those suits was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other civil rights groups.

“Arizonans are understandably frustrated with illegal immigration,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said. “But diverting federal resources away from dangerous aliens such as terrorism suspects and aliens with criminal records will impact the entire country’s safety.”

The Justice Department suit is also aimed at stemming a tide of laws like the Arizona statute under consideration in other states. “The Constitution and the federal immigration laws do not permit the development of a patchwork of state and local immigration policies throughout the country,” the suit says.

Justice officials are “sending an unmistakable cannon shot across the bow of any other state that might be tempted to follow Arizona’s misguided approach,” said Lucas Guttentag, director of the immigrants’ rights project for the A.C.L.U., and an author of that group’s suit.

The Justice Department asked for a court injunction to prevent the Arizona law from taking effect as currently scheduled on July 29. Hearings in the other cases are scheduled for July 15 and 22. The law, signed by Gov. Jan Brewer on April 23, makes it a crime to be an illegal immigrant in the state and requires law enforcement officers to determine the immigration status of people they stop based on a “reasonable suspicion” they might be illegal immigrants.

White House officials said President Obama was not involved in the Justice Department’s decision to sue. But the suit came after recent steps by the president to frame the immigration debate to favor Democrats in advance of mid-term elections in November, including a speech Thursday where he restated his commitment to overhaul legislation that would give legal status to millions of illegal immigrants. He gave no timetable for that debate.

The suit deepened the controversy over the Arizona law. Representative Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, said the president was wasting resources that should be spent controlling the southwest border.

“For President Obama to stand in the way of a state which has taken action to stand up for its citizens against the daily threat of violence and fear is disgraceful and a betrayal of his Constitutional obligation to protect our citizens,” said Mr. Issa, one of 19 Republicans signing a letter criticizing the suit.

Kris Kobach, a lawyer and consultant to Governor Brewer who is a co-author of the Arizona statute, said it was tailored to complement federal law. The Justice Department’s suit is “unnecessary,” he said, and “the suspicion is this is more about politics than law.”

In a background call with reporters, a senior department official said the decision to file the lawsuit — and to do so on pre-emption grounds, rather than other civil rights issues like racial profiling — followed extensive deliberations with the Civil Rights Division and others inside the department, and a trip to Arizona to meet with state officials.

Should the department fail to convince the courts to block Arizona from enforcing the law, the official said, it would closely watch for signs that people of Hispanic appearance were being targeted.

Charles Savage contributed reporting from Washington.

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