Police Chiefs Address Arizona's New Immigration Law

Attorney General Eric Holder met Wednesday with police chiefs from more than a dozen cities across the country to talk about Arizona's new immigration law. The measure empowers police to question and arrest people suspected of being in the country illegally. The chiefs say it will cause distrust between immigrant communities and their officers and perhaps hamper police work.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

Attorney General Eric Holder met yesterday with police chiefs from more than a dozen cities around the country to talk about the new immigration law in Arizona. That new state law empowers police to question and arrest people they suspect of being in the country illegally, and these big city police chiefs say it will cause distrust between immigrant communities and their officers and could potentially hamper police work. Attorney General Holder has been a critic of the new law, as has his boss, President Obama.

Joining us to talk about how this issue of immigration continues to rankle is NPR's news analyst Juan Williams, joining us from the NPR bureau in New York. Hello, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So the meeting between the attorney general and these police chiefs seem to be very much about getting some complaints aired about this new law. Is that what this session was about?

WILLIAMS: What's going on here is the administration finds itself bucking a public opinion tide. And the tide indicates that in the state of Arizona, about 71 percent of the residents support this new law that allows the police to question people about their legal status, despite concerns about violations of civil rights and, in particular, racial profiling. And nationally, according to Pewit, 63 percent of Americans think this law is a good idea. But the Justice Department is already in the process of beginning to challenge the law that has been enacted in Arizona.

GREENE: I don't want to gloss over these poll numbers that you mentioned. I mean, if a majority of Americans support this new law, is President Obama, the administration, just on the wrong side of this, politically?

WILLIAMS: They're on the wrong side of it in this sense, David. If you also ask people: Is this a risk of being a civil rights violation? People say yes. Potentially, this is a civil rights issue. But they are also saying look at illegal immigration. Look at the strain it puts on the social safety net, especially in those Southwestern states. You know, look at the potential for the violence on the other side of the border to come over into the U.S., and they're saying we want something done. So there's a sense of urgency, and it's really put President Obama on the defensive.

GREENE: Let me just make sure I understand that, because I think it's an important point. Republicans saw an opportunity here in this mid-term election year to grab hold again of an issue that they feel gives them the advantage.

WILLIAMS: Without a doubt.

GREENE: So, Juan, it's sounding like we're talking about a lot of pressure on President Obama, and this pressure seems to explain why we might have heard the president come out this week and say I'm going to send 1,200 National Guard troops to the Mexican border to fight illegal immigration.

WILLIAMS: Right. You know, in the meeting that he held with some of the Republican senators on Tuesday, he said, you know, we're doing more than President Bush has ever done. And this effort to send the 1,200 now is an effort to try to allay Republican concerns and buy them into the larger task of immigration reform that's going to include the very unpopular item of some sort of pathway, if you will, for people who are already in the country to gain full citizenship in this country.

GREENE: Well, one Republican, John McCain, the senator from Arizona, former presidential candidate, it seems like his hand has been forced. I mean, here's a senator who joined President Bush in calling for comprehensive immigration reform, allowing, you know, some illegal immigrants to remain in the country.

WILLIAMS: Sure.

GREENE: Now John McCain is out there saying build this whole fence, you know, send more troops down. Talk about that political pressure on him.

WILLIAMS: Well, J.D. Hayworth, a strong conservative challenger to Senator McCain, McCain leads him by just seven points - there's no way that that race should be that close. John McCain feels threatened, and as a result, has been moving to the right. And this key element of his rightward motion here in terms of the political spectrum has been his shift on immigration.

GREENE: That's NPR news analyst Juan Williams, joining us from our bureau in New York. Juan, thank you

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, David.

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