Feds Sue Arizona Over Immigration Law

The Justice Department is suing Arizona over a law it says gives the state too much power to oversee immigration. The law requires police to determine the immigration status of people they stop for other infractions, and arrest those lacking documentation of their legal status. The Obama administration says it will lead to racial profiling.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. The federal government is suing the state of Arizona over its controversial immigration law. This announcement today from the Justice Department opens a major new front in the immigration debate. The suit focuses on the power of the federal government to oversee enforcement of the nation's immigration laws.

Here's NPR's Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON: The Obama administration lawsuit comes only a few weeks before the Arizona statute is set to take effect. The Arizona law requires police to ask for documents if officers have a reasonable suspicion the people they're questioning may be in the country illegally.

But the Justice Department says the law gets in the way of the federal government's power to oversee immigration. Attorney General Eric Holder told NBC recently that he's worried about a patchwork of different state laws developing across the country.

Attorney General ERIC HOLDER (Justice Department): One of the things I think we have to acknowledge is that our immigration system is broken in many ways, and I think it requires a national solution. The concern I have is trying to do it state by state.

JOHNSON: The legal theory goes like this: The Arizona law runs afoul of the Constitution's Supremacy Clause because the state is trying to establish its own immigration policy. The Justice Department says Arizona can't override federal laws on the books, and it can't disturb its relationships with foreign governments like Mexico under a theory known as preemption.

And that's just the beginning of the concerns. Here's Holder again on "Meet the Press."

(Soundbite of television program, "Meet the Press")

Atty. Gen. HOLDER: I understand the frustration of people in Arizona, but the concern I have about the law that they have passed is that I think it has the possibility of leading to racial profiling.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department case doesn't mention racial profiling, but the possibility that police will target minorities already has been flagged in separate lawsuits. Some members of the law enforcement community offer yet another objection, that the Arizona law will divert attention from violent gangs and drug smugglers.

Department of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano knows the issues all too well. She's a former governor of Arizona, and she drew on that experience in Senate testimony this year.

Secretary JANET NAPOLITANO (Department of Homeland Security): We have some deep concerns with the law, from a law enforcement perspective, because we believe it will detract from and siphon resources that we need to focus on those in the country illegally who are those who are committing the most serious crimes, in addition to violating our nation's immigration laws.

JOHNSON: Arizona's current governor could hardly disagree more. Republican Jan Brewer says her state is a gateway for drugs, guns and violence. The new law, Brewer says, will make life better for people in Arizona, and she told Fox News that the public is on her side.

Governor JAN BREWER (Republican, Arizona): I think that the majority of the people of Arizona, and again of America, overwhelmingly supports Senate Bill 1070. It's a good bill, and it's another tool for us to be able to use in order to get our borders under control.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department case didn't surprise anybody who's been listening to the White House this year. President Obama repeatedly called the Arizona law misguided, and weeks ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accidentally announced the lawsuit in an interview with South American television before the Justice Department was ready to move.

Arizona already has hired an outside lawyer to help defend the case, and the state is collecting money to pay for the help in what it calls a Border Legal Defense Fund. The Obama administration is asking for an injunction that would prevent the law from taking effect July 29th. So for the next three weeks, Arizona police and the federal government will be watching the courthouse for clues.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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