The Obama administration launched its long-expected legal attack on Arizona's strict new immigration law Tuesday, arguing that only Washington can set the nation's rules for arresting illegal immigrants.
The government said Tuesday that its immigration enforcement policy "targets … dangerous aliens," including violent criminals, gang members, drug traffickers and others "who pose a danger to the national security and a risk to public safety," whereas the Arizona law would force federal officials to cope with a flood of illegal immigrants who pose no danger.
Entirely innocent Arizonans will suffer as well, the administration said. It foresaw "countless inspections and detentions" of people who do not have the correct papers. But U.S. officials did not contend that the state law violates federal civil rights laws or the equal-protection guarantee in the Constitution.
The lawsuit urges a federal judge in Phoenix to block Arizona's arrest law from taking effect as scheduled July 29. It adds new weight on the side of the pending suits by immigrants-rights advocates, who say Arizona's stepped-up enforcement would lead to racial profiling and harassment of Latinos.
The move raises the political stakes for the White House. President Obama made no public statement upon the filing of the lawsuit, but Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano — a former Arizona governor — said the state was out of line.
"Setting immigration policy and enforcing immigration law is a national responsibility," Holder said. "A patchwork of state laws will only create more problems than its solves."
Republican leaders, reacting quickly, said Washington and the administration deserved the blame for failing to enforce the immigration laws over many years. "Suing the people of Arizona for attempting to do a job the federal government has utterly failed to execute will not help secure our borders," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
In April, the Arizona Legislature voted to "discourage and deter" illegal immigrants from staying in the state by requiring the police to question immigrants under some circumstances.
When an officer has "reasonable suspicion" that a person is not a legal resident, he is to ask questions and may take into custody those who cannot show they are legal residents. These illegal residents could be convicted of a state crime and then turned over to federal immigration agents.
But the administration officials said Arizona's policy "disrupts the national enforcement regime." Its legal brief explains what U.S. immigration officials have long acknowledged: They do not wish to arrest or deport the vast majority of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency said it was on track to deport about 400,000 people this year. But the agency said last week that it did not seek to deport illegal immigrants who were brought here as children or who are caring for children or close relatives.
The administration's lawsuit rests on the Constitution and its declaration that the laws of the United States are the "supreme law of the land." State laws that conflict with federal law are deemed to be "preempted."
The Justice Department argued that Arizona's law should be struck down because immigration "remains the exclusive province of the federal government." If the law were to be put into effect, the government said, it would disrupt federal efforts and upset the "careful balance of immigration enforcement priorities."
The lawsuit was cheered by a Latino community that has grown increasingly disillusioned with the Obama administration over the failure to revamp the immigration system. A Gallup poll showed that Obama's approval rating among Latinos dropped from 69% in January to 57% in May. Although Latino voters are unlikely to swing to the Republican Party in great numbers, they could damage the prospects of Democratic candidates in the midterm election in November by staying home. Over the past week, the Obama administration has taken steps to reenergize grass-roots Latino voters.
But nationwide polls have also found that 50% to 60% of Americans support Arizona's effort to arrest more illegal immigrants, and politicians elsewhere have proposed similar provisions in their states.
As of June 30, similar bills had been introduced in five other states, according to the National Council of State Legislatures: South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Michigan.
In Florida, Rick Scott, a Naples multimillionaire who has made illegal immigration a centerpiece of his campaign to be the Republican candidate for governor, recently issued a television ad blasting his primary opponent, Atty. Gen. Bill McCollum, over the Arizona law. McCollum says that he supports it but that it's not needed in Florida.
"Rick Scott backs Arizona's law. He'll bring it to Florida and let our police check if the people they arrest are here legally," the ad says.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer derided Obama's intervention as "nothing more than a massive waste of taxpayer funds. These funds could be better used against the violent Mexican cartels than the people of Arizona."
She also pledged to defend the measure, SB 1070, in court. "The truth is the Arizona law is both reasonable and constitutional. It mirrors substantially what has been federal law in the United States for many decades. Arizona's law is designed to complement, not supplant, enforcement of federal immigration laws."
The new lawsuit also puts vulnerable Democrats in a difficult spot, given the popularity of Arizona's tough new law. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), who is in a tough reelection fight, issued a statement Tuesday calling the lawsuit "a sideshow distracting us from the real task at hand."
The legal battle may be decided on a fast track. U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton has set a hearing for July 22 in Phoenix to hear arguments on whether to block the law from going into effect. If she issues a temporary injunction, the state can immediately appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, and from there, to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ken Dilanian and Peter Nicholas in the Washington bureau and Times staff writer Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.