What will Washington do about the Arizona immigration law?

The Arizona immigration law takes center stage in Washington after Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill Friday that makes it a crime to be in the United States illegally.

Matt York/AP
Border Patrol agents meet along the Arizona border on Thursday night. On Friday, Arizona enacted the nation's toughest immigration law, requiring police officers to question suspected illegal immigrants about their status. The law has provoked a chorus of concern over civil liberties and racial profiling by police.
Cheryl Evans/The Arizona Republic/AP
Arizona immigration law: After Gov. Jan Brewer (R) of Arizona signed legislation that makes it a state crime to be in the United States illegally, Congress and the Obama administration must decide what to do about the new law.

Immigration has shot to center stage in Washington, following the signing Friday by Gov. Jan Brewer (R) of Arizona of legislation that makes it a state crime to be in the United States illegally. The law also requires Arizona police officers to question people about their immigration status if there is cause for suspicion.

It is being called the toughest legislation against illegal immigration in the country.

At the signing ceremony in Phoenix, Governor Brewer defended what she called her “unwavering signature” on the bill, despite concerns that the new law could result in racial profiling and other violations of civil liberties.

Arizona, which borders on Mexico, has long struggled with illegal immigration. Brewer discussed “border-related violence and crime due to illegal immigration,” but added that she had worked with legislators to strengthen civil-rights protections in the bill.

Brewer also blamed Washington for failing to address the immigration crisis in the US, where estimates of the undocumented immigrant population range from 12 million to 20 million.

“We in Arizona have been more than patient waiting for Washington to act,” Brewer said. “But decades of inaction and misguided policy have created a dangerous and unacceptable situation.”

Obama urges Congress to pass immigration legislation

In remarks Friday morning, before Brewer’s decision to sign was known, President Obama called the bill “misguided” and said he had instructed members of his administration to “closely monitor the situation and examine the civil rights and other implications of this legislation.”

He also urged Congress to proceed with legislation, in an effort to preempt actions by other state legislatures.

“Our failure to act responsibly at the federal level will only open the door to irresponsibility by others,” Obama said in a Rose Garden naturalization ceremony for 24 foreign-born members of the US military. “And that includes, for example, the recent efforts in Arizona which threaten 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.”

Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada said earlier this week that he would accelerate action on comprehensive immigration reform, putting it ahead of an energy bill. The legislation would address both border enforcement as well as a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for undocumented workers.

House Democrats have expressed skepticism that such legislation can pass amid Washington’s sharp partisanship, especially in the run-up to midterm elections.

“I am not sure the Senate can move an immigration bill,” House majority leader Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland said at a Monitor breakfast Thursday. But, he added, “if [Senator Reid] can move an immigration bill, the position the speaker and I have taken is we will address that matter.”

Immigration can be a politically risky issue

Immigration is a politically charged issue for both parties.

For Democrats, the reward for taking up immigration is that it satisfies the Hispanic lobby, which has long fought for comprehensive reform. Obama won 68 percent of the Hispanic vote in his presidential election, and it’s a constituency he wants to hold.

But there are major risks for Democrats in promoting anything that can be called “amnesty,” which is how opponents characterize a pathway to citizenship. Democratic members of Congress sitting in swing districts and states are leery of voting for an immigration reform that can be used against them in November.

Thus, the doubts about passing legislation this year.

For Republicans, the risk in opposing reform is that they lose political ground with Hispanics, the fastest-growing minority in the country.

Democrats hope they can bring along at least a few Senate Republicans both in crafting legislative language and in reaching the 60 votes needed to defeat an expected filibuster.

So far, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina is the only Republican senator working with Democrats on a bill. On Tuesday, Obama reached out to several other Senate Republicans, with no success.

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