Justice Department sues Arizona over immigration law

The federal government is suing to stop Arizona's new immigration law, setting the stage for a clash between the federal government and state over the nation's toughest immigration crackdown. (July 6)
By Jerry Markon and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Obama administration sued Arizona over the state's new immigration law on Tuesday, an assertion of federal power that sets up a rare clash with a state on one of the nation's most divisive political issues.

The Justice Department lawsuit charges that the Arizona law cracking down on illegal immigrants conflicts with federal law, would disrupt immigration enforcement and would lead to police harassment of those who cannot prove their lawful status. Filed in federal court in Arizona, it says the state's measure is unconstitutional and asks a judge to stop it from taking effect.

"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 lawsuit says.

The Arizona law, signed by Gov. Jan Brewer (R) in April, gives police the power to question anyone who they have a "reasonable suspicion" is an illegal immigrant.

In challenging a state law, federal lawyers stepped squarely into the politically charged debate over how to handle the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. Reaction to the suit poured in from all sides, much of it blistering, making it clear that this was no ordinary legal filing but rather the start of a battle that will help define the midterm elections this fall.

"Not only does this lawsuit reveal the Obama administration's contempt for immigration laws and the people of Arizona, it reveals contempt for the majority of the American people who support Arizona's efforts," 20 House Republicans said in a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who administration officials said decided last week to challenge the law. President Obama, who had voiced strong opposition to the legislation, was briefed in the past few days, officials said.

The administration disavowed any political calculus, with one senior Justice Department official saying: "We're charged not with doing what's popular or partisan or political, but doing what we think is right."

But other Democrats suggested that the legal fight could play to their advantage by placing them on the side of Hispanics, the nation's fastest-growing minority. Though most polls show the Arizona law is broadly popular, leading Hispanic groups and politicians have condemned it.

"There is probably some short-term pain politically," said one senior Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to publicly contradict the administration. "But considering the demographic changes the country is undergoing, long term there is a lot of upside in advocating for Latinos and comprehensive immigration reform."

Criticism on civil rights

Civil rights groups call Arizona's statute the nation's toughest law against illegal immigrants and say it targets Hispanics, though the legislation says police "may not consider race, color or national origin" in seeking to determine immigration status.

At least five other lawsuits have been filed in federal court -- by civil rights groups and others -- challenging the law, which is scheduled to take effect July 29. Hearings are set for July 15 and July 22 in those cases, and Justice Department officials said they expect a hearing around the same time on their motion asking a judge to issue a preliminary injunction blocking the law.

Justice officials cited two other examples of the federal government suing a state, including a 2007 lawsuit by the Bush administration challenging an Illinois law that tried to prevent employers from using an online system to determine immigration status. But legal experts said such a step is exceedingly rare.

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