Administration Sues Arizona Over Immigration Law

The Justice Department is suing to stop Arizona's tough new immigration law from taking effect later this month. Attorney General Eric Holder said the law will "create more problems than it solves." Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer called the lawsuit "nothing more than a massive waste of taxpayer funds."

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The case is the United States of America versus the State of Arizona. The Justice Department is suing to stop Arizona's tough new immigration law from taking effect later this month.

Attorney General Eric Holder said the Arizona law will quote, create more problems than it solves. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer shot back, calling the lawsuit quote, nothing more than a massive waste of taxpayer funds.

The federal lawsuit says that the state law is unconstitutional, but the controversy has been as much about politics as the law.

NPR's Ted Robbins reports from Tucson.

TED ROBBINS: Attorney General Eric Holder called the Arizona law, known as SB1070, unconstitutional because quote, setting immigration policy and enforcing immigration laws is a national responsibility. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, also quoting, called it both reasonable and constitutional. It mirrors, substantially, what has been federal law in the United States for many decades.

The courts will decide who's right. But to help understand, a little history.

Up until the latter half of the 19th century, the U.S. essentially had open borders. Then, states began to worry about an influx of immigrants - mostly Asian, and mostly on the West Coast. So they tried to enact laws to keep the immigrants out.

University of Arizona law Professor Mark Miller says that didnt work.

Professor MARK MILLER (American Government, University of Arizona Law School): Those laws were struck down in a series of cases, starting in the 1870s and coming forward, consistently with the Supreme Court saying immigration is an entirely a matter of federal policy.

ROBBINS: So there's almost 140 years of case law backed up by the Constitution itself, which says Congress alone has the power to establish a uniform rule of naturalization.

The Justice Department's main argument is that Arizona is trying to usurp that power. In a written statement, Governor Brewer said SB1070 is designed to complement, not supplant, enforcement of federal immigration laws.

Mark Miller says the problem is that it doesnt give police the discretion to carry out the law, depending on their resources; the same discretion police have to enforce traffic laws, violent offenses, even cooperating with the feds on immigration. It requires them to enforce the immigration law, and forces them to make it a top priority by giving anyone the right to sue if the law isnt enforced.

Mr. MILLER: Local police chiefs and sheriffs have made this point beautifully in Arizona. They say, its the law and I will enforce it - but I dont like it. And I dont like it because my goal is public safety, and I think directing resources in this direction will reduce public safety.

ROBBINS: Thats also an argument in the Justice Department lawsuit. But immigration isnt just a legal issue. It's a political issue - and nowhere more so than in Arizona, where roughly half the nation's illegal border crossers enter the U.S.

Brewer, who is running to keep her job, has public opinion on her side. A majority of Arizonans say they support SB1070. Given that reality, even Democratic attorney general Terry Goddard also said he was disappointed in the Justice lawsuit.

Goddard will be Brewer's opponent in the governor's race should she win the Republican primary. But Goddard's reasoning is that its a distraction from larger issues.

Mr. TERRY GODDARD (Attorney General, Arizona): Well, from the big picture, I'd much prefer to see the federal government weigh in on the side of immigration reform and border security, rather than picking a fight in court with the State of Arizona.

ROBBINS: As attorney general, Goddard would normally be defending the state against the Justice lawsuit, but he opposed SB1070 before it passed. And after it did, a disagreement with Brewer led to a private law firm taking the case.

Both of Arizona's senators, Jon Kyl and John McCain, issued statements Tuesday opposing the Justice Department lawsuit. So did several Democratic congressmen and women facing re-election. At least five other private organizations have also filed lawsuits seeking injunctions to keep the Arizona law from taking effect on July 29th.

A judge in Phoenix is set to hear one of those cases a week before, on July 22nd. With yesterday's filing, though, the federal government becomes the most powerful plaintiff against Arizona.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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