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In the short term, immigration ruling is a gift for the GOP

As the controversial law kicks in, residents and law enforcement officials struggle to make sense of the situation in the town of Benson, Ariz.

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, July 30, 2010

Christmas came early for demagogues. The court decision putting a hold on the worst provisions of Arizona's new anti-Latino immigration law is a gift-wrapped present to those who delight in turning truth, justice and the American way into political liabilities.

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As surely everyone knows by now, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton issued a preliminary injunction Wednesday blocking the state from enforcing parts of the law that look patently unconstitutional. The political fallout is pretty clear: In the short run, at least, Republicans win and Democrats lose.

Longer term, the impact of the immigration issue on the major parties' prospects is the other way around. But the focus now is on winning in November, and the GOP is licking its chops.

Critics have another weapon to use against the Obama administration, because it was President Obama's Justice Department that filed suit against the Arizona law. Attorney General Eric Holder chose a relatively narrow argument: that the draconian measure was a blatant usurpation of the federal government's prerogative to establish and enforce immigration laws.

Bolton agreed, and she enjoined the parts of the measure that ventured onto federal turf. The Justice Department did not ask her to address the other big problem with the law, which is that it amounts to a prescription for racial profiling on a scale not seen in this country since the days of Jim Crow laws in the South. But Bolton went there anyway.

If local police are ordered to verify the immigration status of anyone they detain or question, there is a "substantial likelihood" that such an indiscriminate dragnet will sweep up legal resident aliens, foreign tourists with valid visas and even U.S. citizens -- in other words, anyone who looks kind of Mexican.

Aside from Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio -- a grandstanding publicity hound who already stages immigration raids for the television cameras -- virtually all prominent law enforcement officials in the state opposed the law. They argued that it would overburden their resources, potentially put their officers in danger and, most important, make it much harder to investigate crimes. Imagine two men in a car who happen to be waiting at a stoplight when a brutal mugging takes place before their eyes. If the new law were in effect, and if one of those witnesses were here illegally, what are the odds that they'd stick around to tell police what they saw?

We'll hear no such subtlety or nuance from Republicans this fall, though. We'll hear thunderous allegations that the Obama administration -- the big, bad federal government -- conspired with an unelected federal judge to keep the state of Arizona from enforcing a law that seeks only to kick out of the country a bunch of people who have no right to be here.

We'll hear from GOP candidates that Arizona had to act because the federal government refuses to "secure the border." The fact is that President Obama has sharply increased border enforcement and deportations; the influx of undocumented immigrants is greatly reduced from what it was during the Bush administration. But there Obama goes again, trying to find a sane, moderate course of action. Predictably, he's getting hit from both sides -- the anti-immigrant crowd that claims he's not doing enough, and the pro-immigrant crowd that complains he's doing too much.

Immigration wasn't always a partisan issue, but that's what it has become; even John McCain, once a strong advocate of comprehensive reform, now sides with the xenophobes. This is a huge long-term problem for Republicans, who risk becoming branded as the anti-Latino party -- and driving the nation's biggest and fastest-growing minority group into the arms of the Democratic Party for a generation or more.

Smart GOP strategists such as Karl Rove understand this danger and have sounded warnings. But their voices are drowned out by those who demand that authorities somehow track down, apprehend and expel the estimated 11 million people here without documents, the vast majority of whom are law-abiding and productive. Anything short of an all-out pogrom is labeled "amnesty" -- the kind of craven surrender favored by such liberal bleeding-hearts as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

"No to illegal immigration" is a simple sound bite that will win votes for some Republican candidates. Democrats find themselves stuck with words that work better as a movie title than as a campaign slogan: "Do the right thing."

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

More Post commentary on immigration: A University of Arizona law professor and the University of California at Davis law school dean on the Supreme Court ruling that supports the profiling in Arizona's law.

Former commissioners of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service on why the Obama administration had to sue Arizona over its immigration law.


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