Arizona Law Stokes Immigration Talk in D.C.

By: - April 26, 2010 12:00 am

An Arizona law, signed Friday (April 23) by Governor Jan Brewer, that gives local police broad new powers to arrest illegal immigrants drew a rebuke from President Obama and revived long-stalled efforts to overhaul the country’s immigration laws.

“We in Arizona have been more than patient waiting for Washington to act,” Brewer, a Republican, said when announcing she would approve the law. “But decades of federal inaction and misguided policy have created a dangerous and unacceptable situation.”

Obama criticized the legislation at a Friday naturalization ceremony at the White House, where Janet Napolitano, Brewer’s predecessor as Arizona governor and Obama’s homeland security chief, gave the oath of citizenship. The president said Arizona’s new law showed why national immigration laws need to be overhauled.

“Our failure to act responsibly at the federal level will only open the door to irresponsibility by others,” Obama said. “That includes, for example, the recent efforts in Arizona, which threatened to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and their communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.”

He said the federal government will monitor the Arizona law to make sure it doesn’t lead to civil rights violations. Other groups have vowed to sue to block the law from taking effect.

The spotlight on the Arizona law comes as CNN reported that the U.S. Senate soon will turn its attention to immigration — and not energy, as previously planned. “Democrats know that Latinos who voted for President Obama and other Democrats in 2008 are furious that Democrats have not yet kept the promise to advance comprehensive immigration reform,” CNN wrote.

The issue is crucial to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in his reelection bid in Nevada this year. At a Las Vegas rally earlier this month, he claimed 56 Democratic senators supported immigration overhaul, according to The New York Times , meaning only four Republican votes would be needed for passage.

But the passage of the Arizona law is the biggest signal that immigration, which had moved to the back burner in recent years as legislators focused on balancing budgets, is again heating up in state capitols.

That’s especially true in border states, following the killing of an Arizona rancher 20 miles from Mexico last month. Police suspect the murderer was an illegal immigrant and tracked his footprints back to Mexico, according to The Associated Press . The killing prompted Brewer and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to take a helicopter tour of the border region, after which both governors called for more National Guard troops on the border, reported the Tucson Sentinel . Brewer told Fox News the situation on the border was “out of control.”

Last month, Texas Governor Rick Perry called for more federal help in patrolling the border, specifically asking for more National Guard troops and unmanned aerial drones, in response to a surge in drug-related violence in northern Mexico, the Texas Tribune wrote.

In 2006, President Bush sent 6,000 National Guard troops to the border, where they helped with construction projects and administrative tasks, freeing up the Border Patrol to focus on stopping illegal immigrants. But the deployment was never meant to be permanent; the troops stayed for two years until the Border Patrol hired enough new agents to take over. The Arizona Republic noted that an administration official told a Senate panel last week that Napolitano would decide soon whether to send more National Guard troops back to the region.

Brewer, who faces a tough primary election in August, tried to walk a fine line as she signed the bill. All last week, she would not say whether she would approve it, even as she toured the state’s National Guard headquarters and criticized the Obama administration’s handling of border issues.

She tried to mollify opponents who worried that the law would lead to widespread racial profiling by issuing an executive order to set guidelines for police on when they can and cannot stop people on the suspicion that they are in the country illegally.

Arizona has long had the most stringent anti-immigration policies in the country. The most recent effort was crafted by Russell Pearce, a state senator whose son was shot by an illegal immigrant. As Stateline wrote in 2005, Pearce is the Arizona Legislature’s most outspoken opponent of illegal immigration. 

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