Why The Federal Lawsuit Against Arizona Is More Than Just Politics

Last week, shortly after the federal government announced its legal challenge to Arizona’s immigration law, SB-1070, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) proclaimed, “It is obviously political.” The sponsor of SB-1070, state Sen. Russell Pearce (R-AZ), similarly blasted President Obama, stating, “[t]he Obama administration simply is filing suit, a political lawsuit if you will, [be]cause they have no leg to stand on.” Now the Obama administration is getting hit by uneasy Democrats, who are worried about the political impact of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) lawsuit. “I might have chosen both a different tack and a different time,” said Gov. Bill Ritter (D-CO).”This is an issue that divides us politically, and I’m hopeful that their strategy doesn’t do that in a way that makes it more difficult for candidates to get elected, particularly in the West.” Gov. Phil Bredesen (D-TN) stated, “[i]t is such a toxic subject, such an important time for Democrats.”

However, both Republicans and Democrats need to realize the DOJ lawsuit really is motivated by something much more significant than cheap political points. “The basis for this was a legal determination by those of us at the Justice Department that the law was inconsistent with the Constitution,” said Attorney General, Eric Holder, this Sunday. Holder additionally denied suing Arizona simply to brand Republicans as “anti-immigration” or “anti-Hispanic.” If the purpose of the lawsuit were simply meant to motivate immigrant or Latino voters, Holder probably would’ve been better off pursuing racial profiling charges since that is their main concern. However, though Holder might sue Arizona again if there is evidence of racial profiling once the law goes into effect, the current lawsuit sticks to the claim that SB-1070 is preempted by federal law. “We can’t have a patchwork of 50 states developing their own immigration policy,” explained White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod.

Practically speaking, the decision to file a lawsuit was pretty much out of President Obama’s hands once he directed the DOJ to review it. From there, Holder didn’t confer with political strategists or pollsters, but rather, legal experts, community stakeholders, and local police. Nine police chiefs from across the country met with Holder to voice their concerns about the law. “Laws like this are put forward as a public safety issue, but they are not a public safety solution,” said Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, who attended the meeting. “These laws will actually increase crime, not decrease crime. Witnesses won’t come forward. And they break down the trust we’ve been building for decades. On many levels, these laws don’t work.” In late May, Justice Department lawyers reportedly visited Phoenix to speak with lawyers from the offices of the state attorney general, Terry Goddard, and Gov. Jan Brewer (R-AZ) about the possibility of litigation.

Ultimately, the political consequences that the lawsuit will undoubtedly produce are complicated. Newsweek declared that the lawsuit is “good politics” for Obama because “it undermines criticism that the president has done nothing when it comes to immigration reform.” Yet, if anything, SB-1070 and the corresponding lawsuit are perceived as the products of a broken immigration system that Washington, DC has yet to tackle. It doesn’t help that, overall, Americans oppose the suit by 50% to 33%. However, while the lawsuit doesn’t sit well with most voters and fails to take the place of immigration reform for Latinos who support it, it’s biggest political impact will likely be in the long-run. Holder doesn’t have to bother “branding” Republicans as anti-immigrant — they tend to dig their own ditch when it comes to that label. With that said, the more the lawsuit galvanizes the GOP’s right-wing base, the stronger the association between nativism and the Republican Party will grow in the minds of Latinos. As the shameful link intensifies, President Obama has provided Democrats with a golden opportunity to set themselves apart. “The Obama administration is playing more for the history books than for the midterm elections,” concluded Frank Sharry of America’s Voice.



Director of the Immigration Policy Center Mary Giovagnoli responded to politicians on both sides of the aisle who are critical of the DOJ lawsuit:

Sorry that the timing stinks. Sorry that Congress hasn’t done its job. Sorry that this may not play out very well with some members of the public who don’t understand that maintaining checks and balances requires action. Sorry that this makes Arizona out to be the constitutional bully that its state legislature is trying so hard to be. But the federal government is defending its constitutional right to regulate immigration law.