By approving Attorney General Eric Holder's lawsuit against Arizona and its tough new illegal immigration law, President Obama has set course into a political hurricane that some political analysts say could ultimately undermine comprehensive immigration reform, at least in the short-term.
"I think they actually believe that, in a righteous, lawyerly way, the federal government had to step forward and assert federal authority here," Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a pro-business group that opposes the law, tells Dan Nowicki of the Arizona Republic newspaper. "But I also think it's a pretty naked play for Latino voters. To me, it was a risky and troubling move."
Mr. Holder on Tuesday filed suit saying the Arizona law preempts federal authority over immigration, although the law itself – which takes effect July 29 – repeatedly cites federal immigration law as its basis.
Although not included as a basis for the federal lawsuit, the main thrust of opposition to the law is that it allows police to ask more questions about people's immigration status based on "reasonable suspicion" that someone is in the country illegally.
"[D]espite the forces of the status quo, despite the polarization and the frequent pettiness of our politics, we are confronting the great challenges of our times," Obama said in a speech at American University on July 1. "And while this work isn’t easy, and the changes we seek won’t always happen overnight, what we’ve made clear is that this administration will not just kick the can down the road. Immigration reform is no exception."
But the lawsuit now threatens to drive a hard partisan divide into the electorate over immigration.
Already, key Republicans such as Arizona’s two Republican US senators John McCain and Jon Kyl, who have supported reform in the past, have peeled off, putting Obama's recent push for comprehensive federal reform – including a partial amnesty for illegal immigrants – into question.
"The political implications of the lawsuit are difficult to predict with precision at this juncture," writes the Gallup polling organization. "Republican leaders will hope that reaction against the lawsuit generates more support for GOP candidates running on an anti-administration platform, while Democrats may hope that the lawsuit solidifies support among Hispanic voters in key congressional districts and states with close Senate and gubernatorial races."
For many Democrats, including Obama, the Arizona law represents a dramatic roll-back of civil rights gains that has to be stopped before it gains steam in other states, creating a patchwork nation of immigration laws.
Fearing the law will usher in a "Jose Crow" era, especially in Southern and Southwestern states, Texas Democrat Garnet Coleman, a state representative, calls the Holder lawsuit "a first step" toward "finally solving our nation's broken immigration system" in an op-ed for the Houston Chronicle.
Polls show a vast partisan divide on both the law itself and the federal lawsuit – conservatives generally back Arizona and liberals back the White House. But Gallup reports that 50 percent of Americans overall oppose the Obama administration’s lawsuit and 33 percent support it.
At the same time, some polling threads have emerged that could, in fact, ease the way for the President's immigration reform gambit.
'Amnesty' a key issue
Atlanta Democratic consultant Drew Westen, who conducts both bipartisan polling and focus groups, says that while Arizona law supporters on the whole are frustrated with Washington's failure to take more action along the border, they also want some sort of amnesty for those who are already in the country, according to a story in the Arizona Republic.
"The president and the attorney general … are actually right in line with the American people who say that this is not a state issue, this is a federal issue, (and) it needs to be solved by the federal government," said Mr. Westen, author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation."
"In politics, a bumper sticker always beats an essay," Mr. Rodgers writes. "Arizona has a bumper sticker that is compelling and clear. It says, 'Do something about illegal immigration, now!' The Obama administration, on the other hand, offers a long-winded essay that only professors could love."