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Justice Department tries to block Arizona’s immigration law, as states take note

Photo: AP Photo/Matt York

In about three weeks Arizona police plan to begin demanding proof of legal status from anyone they suspect is an undocumented immigrant. A new state law instructs any immigrant to “at all times carry with him … any certificate of alien registration or alien registration receipt card issued to him.”

A training video sent to local and state law enforcement agencies in recent weeks warns officers that relying on race or ethnicity to profile a suspect could get them fired. “Arizona officers will never come under this level of scrutiny again,” Lyle Mann, executive director of the state agency that trains police, says in the video. “The entire country is watching to see how Arizona and in particular Arizona law enforcement responds.”

But Arizona police may not get a chance to prove themselves so soon. On Tuesday the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit to block Arizona’s S.B. 1070the so-called “show me your papers” law from going into effect.

In a complaint filed in a federal court in Phoenix, the government argues S.B. 1070 will “cause the detention and harassment of authorized visitors, immigrants and citizens who do not have or carry identification documents” and ignore “humanitarian concerns.”

A lawsuit accompanying the Justice Department’s request for an injunction argues Arizona’s law should be struck down because it violates the supremacy clause of the Constitution that places oversight of immigration enforcement firmly in the hands of the federal government.

“Although a state may adopt regulations that have an indirect or incidental effect on aliens, a state may not establish its own immigration policy or enforce state laws in a manner that interferes with federal immigration law,” reads the Justice Department’s request for an injunction. “The State of Arizona has crossed this constitutional line.”

The challenge recognizes that “Arizonans are understandably frustrated with illegal immigration” but argues that addressing the issue “through a patchwork of state laws will only create more problems than it solves.”

The success of this argument will be one of the most closely watched parts of the government’s case. At least 20 states are now considering bills similar to S.B. 1070. Five states have introduced copycat legislation that will be considered next year. Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah are most likely to pass the new laws.

Opponents of S.B. 1070 say the legal challenge is a clear warning to these states. “The administration’s lawsuit is a cannon shot across the bow of other states that may be tempted to follow Arizona’s misguided approach,” said Lucas Guttentag, director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project.

Indeed, the Justice Department’s challenge puts action behind Obama’s critique that Arizona’s law is “misguided,” but it may not be enough to stop it. For example, Arizona’s police will rely on active federal programs to carry out S.B. 1070. Eight of its state and local law enforcement agencies have signed agreements with the Department of Homeland Security that authorize them to “verify or ascertain an alien’s immigration status.”

The state’s officers will also use computer systems provided by DHS to access an immigration database. Critics of Arizona’s law, such as the AFL-CIO, say this means “the federal government will be complicit in the racial profiling that lies at the heart of the Arizona law.”

A Pew Research Center poll found nearly six in 10 Americans say they agree with Arizona’s approach to immigration. But an equally important bipartisan poll commissioned by the America’s Voice Education Fund found that even four out of five supporters of the new law also support comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented.

Debate over what that reform should look like has stalled immigration reform measures in Congress. A proposal before the House has languished since January. Senator Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Subcommittee on Immigration, has yet to introduce a bill.

In what was supposed to be a key speech on the topic last Thursday, President Obama said fixing the broken immigration system is a “moral imperative” but he offered no specifics as to what measures Congress might consider before the elections in November.

Even without congressional action, the administration’s challenge to Arizona’s new law will put immigration back on the front burner for lawmakers on the campaign trail. Democrats will be able to claim sensitivity towards immigrants and civil rights, while Republicans will attack Obama for blocking what Arizona says is its attempt to fill the federal gap on immigration enforcement.

Meanwhile, the push to expand Arizona’s approach to immigration could resume with new vigor when state legislatures next meet to consider new legislation. The anti-immigrant think tank, Federation for American Immigration Reform, which helped draft S.B. 1070, is taking notes on the Justice Department’s challenge. Its legislative arm, State Legislators for Legal Immigration, continues to advise Arizona representatives and has members in 35 state assemblies.