Both sides in immigration debate blame congressional inaction for Arizona law

Protesters in Arizona urged the Obama administration on Sunday not to cooperate when illegal immigrants are picked up by local police if a tough new state immigration law survives legal challenges.
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 27, 2010

PHOENIX -- On the grounds of the Capitol, in a state that only days earlier had adopted the nation's strictest anti-immigration law, the two sides of an angry debate are united on one thing: They blame Washington.

Years of congressional inaction and paralysis on immigration created a vacuum that either forced the Arizona legislature to step in or allowed overzealous lawmakers to trump federal authority, depending on whom you ask.

The law is injecting new life into the election-year debate over an issue felt strongly in the states, particularly along the Mexican border, even as Congress appears to be at an impasse over whether to consider a complex immigration bill before facing voters this fall.

President Obama came to office promising a broad overhaul of laws governing border security and how illegal immigrants are treated after they arrive in the United States. But he must decide how far to push the issue in the face of a legislative calendar crowded with a pending Supreme Court nomination and fights over financial regulation and the sweeping energy reform policy known as cap and trade. Democrats and Republicans are torn, with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) urging action ahead of his difficult reelection fight but others unmoved.

Three days after Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed the bill, the parched grass surrounding the Capitol remained a political staging ground for both sides. A young woman in a "Legalize Arizona" T-shirt vied for attention with a man carrying a sign that read "You are an Illigal Immigrant in my Country."

The law gives local police broad authority to stop and request documents from anyone they reasonably suspect is an illegal immigrant. It calls for aggressive prosecution of illegal immigrants, and officers can be sued if they do not enforce the law.

Opponents are vowing a federal lawsuit, and some Democrats are calling for an economic boycott of the state, drawing a rebuke from Republicans. Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon (D) said: "This is dividing our city and our state. It's tearing us apart."

A vigil kept by opponents of the new law stretched into another night, while former congressman J.D. Hayworth, a border security hawk, used the domed Capitol as a backdrop to file his formal primary challenge against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

"Stop the hate," read a handmade sign carried by a Mexican-born U.S. citizen.

"Silent no more," said a sign carried by a transplant from Chicago who said he is fed up with Mexican immigrants.

Brewer, who signed the bill Friday, said the legislature had no choice but to assert itself in the absence of federal legislation addressing the tide sweeping across her state. The long border with Mexico remains porous despite significant increases in patrols, and Arizona is home to about 450,000 illegal immigrants.

"We in Arizona have been more than patient waiting for Washington to act," Brewer said. "But decades of federal inaction and misguided policy have created a dangerous and unacceptable situation."

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