Arizona immigration law: Will it hurt Mexico's drug war, as US lawsuit says?

Mexico applauded the Obama administration's lawsuit against the Arizona immigration law. The US lawsuit argues that the Arizona law undermines the effort to fight crime, especially the drug war. What do Mexicans say?

By , Correspondent

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    Carlos Garcia, far right, speaks in support of the US Justice Department's lawsuit challenging an Arizona Immigration law on July 6 in Phoenix. The Obama administration sued Arizona on Tuesday to throw out the state's toughest-in-the-nation immigration law and keep other states from copying it. Mexico supports the lawsuit.
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Mexico’s government applauded an Obama administration lawsuit brought Tuesday against the Arizona immigration law. Some analysts here agree with the lawsuit that argues the Arizona law undermines the drug war. But others say the suit diverts attention away from a more important goal for most Mexicans: US immigration reform.

Mexico expresses its approval of the United States government decision to try and prevent the SB 1070 law from taking effect,” said President Felipe Calderon’s government, which has been highly vocal in opposing the Arizona law.

Filed by the US Justice Department in a federal district court in Arizona, the lawsuit demonstrates President Barack Obama’s commitment to civil and human rights, Mexico’s Senate Foreign Affairs Committee said Tuesday.

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The Arizona law makes it a crime to be an illegal immigrant in the state. It also requires police to determine the immigration status of a person stopped for other infractions when there is “reasonable suspicion” the person is an undocumented migrant.

IN PICTURES: The US/Mexico border

While immigrant and human rights groups also expressed content with the Justice Department's case against Arizona, some ordinary Mexicans and academics were not enamored. They saw the suit as mere pre-election maneuvering for the Hispanic vote while a more politically costly immigration reform stalls indefinitely.

“Immigration is not one of [Obama]’s priorities next to the recession or the elections,” says Pedro Isnardo, presidential policy analyst at the UNAM university in Mexico City. “Although he is not minimizing immigration he is now giving it legal attention because he knows he doesn’t have greater influence in other realms.”

The lawsuit comes on the heels of Obama’s urgent request to Congress last week to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Some security experts in Mexico also said that an argument in the federal lawsuit claiming the Arizona law will undermine the drug war by diverting resources away from targeting “drug smuggling and gang activity” misses the point.

“The priority has always been going after big [criminal] groups. But without discussing prevention, the [drug] problem will continue for years to come,” says Jose Maria Ramos, public security expert at the College of the Northern Border in Tijuana (COLEF).

The lawsuit’s argument that a blanket immigration law hurts the fight against traffickers makes sense to other analysts, however.

“It's easy to understand the legitimate concerns of people in Arizona about border security, but the measure actually makes the border far less secure,” says Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

It will “create fear and distrust of authorities in the minds of legal foreign nationals and good citizens with illegal status in Arizona who might be very useful in helping to stop the traffic of illegal drugs through their contacts in foreigner networks,” says Malcolm Beith, a freelance journalist and author of a forthcoming book on the drug war, "The Last Narco."

The suit also argues that only the federal government, and not a “patchwork” of local entities, can set immigration policy – an apparent reference to other states looking to pass similar laws. In addition, the U.S. government says that the law will cause legal immigrants and visitors to be harassed, and requests an injunction to stop the law from taking effect July 29.

Mexico has strongly condemned the law, filing an amicus brief last month in a lawsuit brought by major civil rights groups. Also in June, governors of Mexican border states said they would not attend this year’s Border Governors Conference unless it was moved from the scheduled location in Arizona. The boycott led Gov. Jan Brewer last week to cancel the September meeting, which has reportedly caused a split among US governors over whether to hold the conference in another state.

For some Mexicans, the US lawsuit is not a defense of civil rights, but merely a step the Obama administration is taking to restrain a state that is overstepping its authority.

“It’s not good or bad; it’s what they should be doing,” said Francisco Adrian Martinez, a 24-year-old engineering student in Mexico City.

IN PICTURES: The US/Mexico border

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