A team of top government lawyers has quietly begun studying legal strategies for the Obama administration to mount a challenge to Arizona's new illegal immigration law, including the filing of a federal lawsuit against the state or joining a suit brought by others who believe the bill unfairly targets Latinos.
President Obama and Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. have denounced the law, leading to expectations that the administration will take action soon. Obama said Wednesday that the law, which allows police to demand proof of citizenship, threatens the "core values that we all care about."
Attorneys from the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security are examining legal options and hope to make suggestions by mid-May, before the Arizona law takes effect sometime in midsummer, officials said.
As lawyers weigh the legal options, the White House voiced concern that other states may adopt laws like Arizona's, adding urgency to the process. A Utah lawmaker already has proposed such a measure there.
Grounds for a possible U.S. challenge could include charges that the Arizona measure unlawfully preempts the federal government's role in securing the country's borders, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the issue. Or federal officials could file a civil rights challenge asserting that the law encourages racial profiling.
"There are multiple options that the administration has," Omar Jadwat, a staff counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project, said Thursday. "They can and should pursue every option within their authority."
The legal deliberations come as the Obama administration and congressional Democrats hash out plans to overhaul federal immigration laws. Democrats on Thursday outlined their own approach, proposing that benchmarks for securing borders be followed by steps to allow undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States.
The administration believes that a court challenge in Arizona would send a message that Arizona should reverse course, and that other states should not follow Arizona's lead.
"In the absence of some sort of coherent national policy, there's always going to be an impetus for this kind of thing — particularly in states that are border states or near the border where there's been a great deal of activity," White House senior advisor David Axelrod said in an interview.
Asked whether the White House was considering steps to head off similar state legislation, Axelrod said: "The best thing we can do is to develop and enforce a rational, thoughtful, consistent immigration policy that holds everybody accountable in the system. And that's what we're working toward."
Yet Obama expressed pessimism over prospects for passing a sweeping immigration overhaul this year. Speaking Wednesday to reporters on Air Force One, the president conceded that Congress may not have the "appetite immediately to dive into another controversial issue."
Still, Senate Democrats are eager to show they have not dropped the matter. Under pressure from Latino advocates, they held a news conference Thursday to outline a new blueprint for an immigration overhaul, combining border security with steps to allow illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S.
But substantial obstacles remain, chiefly the absence of Republican support. A Democratic Senate aide said the new plan would dare Republicans to opt out, likely upsetting Latino voters before the midterm election in November.
The popularity of the Arizona law among many state residents there has prompted other states to consider similar legislation.
In Utah, state Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, a two-term Republican up for reelection this year, is pushing a bill that mirrors the Arizona legislation. He says his state needs to get tough because whenever Arizona attempts to restrict immigration, illegal immigrants simply move to Utah.
"We are becoming a kind of sanctuary state," he said.
Sandstrom also wants to eliminate a program in Utah that allows anyone without proper papers to obtain a driving privilege card, which they often use to start bank accounts and secure loans. "It gives them the mechanism to operate openly in the state of Utah. We certainly have to change that," he said.
Sandstrom added that a recent investigation by Utah's attorney general found that the Social Security numbers of 50,000 local children had been stolen, with many turned over to undocumented workers. And he said Utah was paying about $100 million a year to educate the children of illegal immigrants.
With Utah a conservative state and Republicans having solid majorities in the state House, he expects to start holding hearings this summer. "There is overwhelming support for this right now," Sandstrom said. "Why? Because the word is out that Utah is a state that is pretty soft on illegal immigration."
In Arizona on Thursday, two lawsuits were filed challenging the legality of the new bill.
The National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders filed suit in federal court in Phoenix, saying the measure usurps federal enforcement responsibilities. They also contended that it amounts to racial profiling. The second suit was filed in Tucson, where a local police officer asked the federal court to keep the law from going into effect.
Republican officials, including Gov. Jan Brewer, said that support for the new law was running high, and that proponents were pushing for a statewide referendum in November to express their support for the measure.