By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 27, 2010; A01
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."
Obama criticized the Arizona law and said he would ask the Justice Department to study it for potential civil rights violations. Yet he, too, acknowledged the past failure to grapple with the issue effectively, predicting "misguided efforts" in other states "if we continue to fail to act at the federal level."
Even if Congress were to take up reform, it remains hard to discern which path would satisfy the opposing activists who gathered in the 90-degree heat.
"The culture is being destroyed. You call anywhere, it's 'Push one for English, two for Spanish.' All it does is make it easier for people to live here once they sneak into the country" said Gary Arbitter, who supports the new law and carried the "Silent no more" sign.
Dentist Blaine Brimley agreed. He said there has been too much fear-mongering and too little understanding of the new law, which will go into effect in fewer than 90 days if no court blocks it.
"I just saw a shirt that said 'Shame on Arizona,' " he said, protesting that the state is simply strengthening its laws and enforcing them. "They're not going to do profiling. They're only going to talk to people for traffic violations or something else."
Obama, a former constitutional law professor who, as an Illinois state senator, helped pass a law prohibiting racial profiling, said Arizona's policy threatens "to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans."
Yet supporters of the measure said Arizona Republicans -- only one Republican voted against the bill; all Democrats opposed it -- rightly stepped into a vacuum.
"If [Obama] was doing his job, Arizona would not need to pass this law and Governor Brewer wouldn't need to sign it," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "This has been brewing in Arizona for some time."
On that point, Melanie Nelson, a leader of the Pima County Interfaith Council, agreed. She opposes the law and predicts negative consequences, including harm to businesses and employers and a decline in police cooperation from worried immigrants.
Citing a recent poll that showed support for the law, she said: "People are very frustrated. There's even more tension because there's nothing happening at the federal level."
Outside the Capitol, Ross Canyon addressed a group of young protesters chanting "Sí, se puede," or "Yes, we can," the motto of the United Farm Workers. That slogan was later adopted by reformers who favor a path to citizenship for the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. "People don't like the idea that they will be stopped and carded because of their skin color," said Canyon, a Navajo born in Arizona. "I've had the sheriff stop me, and I'm not from the other side of the border."
Alfonso Garnica, who wore the "Stop the hate" sandwich board, predicted that police, already overburdened, would resort to profiling and called on the federal government to step in.
"They're going to start messing with us, pulling us over and asking for ID. We don't like that," Garnica, an unemployed driver, said. "We're going to have to fight it until we get rid of it."