Arizona Case Alters Political Calculus

Posted July 28, 2010 at 6:43pm

A federal judge’s decision Wednesday to cut the heart out of Arizona’s contentious immigration law is forcing lawmakers to address the politically thorny issue once again, just as they were hoping to slip out of town and avoid controversy over the August recess.

U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton handed a victory to the Obama administration by striking down parts of the Arizona law that require police to determine the immigration status of people they stop and think are in the country illegally. Bolton also halted a provision that would have required immigrants to carry their status documents at all times.

The lawsuit was brought by the Justice Department and several civil rights groups, which challenged the constitutionality of the law. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) has already announced that she is appealing the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said the court “ruled correctly” by blocking key provisions of the law from taking effect.

“While we understand the frustration of Arizonans with the broken immigration system, a patchwork of state and local policies would seriously disrupt federal immigration enforcement and would ultimately be counterproductive,” DOJ spokeswoman Hannah August said. “States can and do play a role in cooperating with the federal government in its enforcement of the immigration laws, but they must do so within our constitutional framework.”

Hill Democrats and Republicans wildly diverged in their reactions to the decision, although they agreed on one thing: the ruling has forced the issue back into the spotlight for Congress.

A senior GOP operative said Republicans will look for openings throughout the fall to vote on border security issues. In fact, Senate Republicans on Wednesday sought to force a vote on a border security measure as part of the small-business job bill. Although Democrats beat back that effort, it was a clear indication that the GOP isn’t going to let the issue go.

[IMGCAP(1)]Sen. Bob Menendez, the lone Hispanic in the Senate, hailed the ruling as a victory for critics of the law who say its core provisions amount to racial profiling.

“I’m pleased the judge enjoined the most controversial and consequential elements of the law,” the New Jersey Democrat said. He said he hopes the Arizona controversy will bring new momentum to Capitol Hill to get broad immigration reforms passed.

“I think the whole issue … cries out for comprehensive reform,” Menendez said.

Arizona Republicans denounced the judge’s decision and vowed to push forward with efforts to take up more targeted aspects of immigration reform, namely border security.

“We are deeply disappointed in the court’s ruling today and disagree with the court’s opinion,” Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl and Sen. John McCain said in a joint statement.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) also decried the ruling and placed blame for the entire situation on the administration. “The Obama administration needs to make immigration reform and border security a priority. … It’s time for the federal government to step up and do its job,” he said.

But Cornyn said that although he would likely push harder to attach border security provisions to other bills as a result of the ruling, he still rejected the idea of taking on sweeping reform this year. “I just don’t think there’s going to be a lot of appetite for a comprehensive reform effort if people are not confident” the government has secured the border, he said.

The Texas Republican demurred when asked whether the ruling would give the GOP an advantage in November. Instead, he framed the issue as one that may hurt Democrats.

“The question is, do they gain anything from suing a state? … I don’t see any benefit,” he said. “It’s shone a light on the failure of the federal government.”

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said Republicans are “on the right side of this one” but added, “Whether it breaks for or against Democrats and Republicans, I don’t really know.”

Menendez rejected the idea that Republicans can use the controversy in Arizona to their advantage.

“I don’t think they’ll succeed on it … [They] may be appealing to a small base,” Menendez said. He warned that in the end, legal immigrants and others “are looking and saying, ‘This is far more than just about undocumented people. It’s about me.'”

In the House, Republicans have already made their position known on the lawsuit: Last month, Rep. John Culberson (Texas) forced a subcommittee vote to cut off Justice Department funds to pay for the lawsuit. Rep. Jack Kingston, a member of the Appropriations Committee, said GOP lawmakers may try to force a similar vote on the House floor in the coming weeks, with the aim of putting Democrats who are in competitive races in a tough spot.

“These are the topics of the day that our constituents want us to address, and it’s kind of typical of the Democrats to shut out this sort of debate,” the Georgia Republican said, predicting that Democrats will face tough questions in their districts in August stemming from the lawsuit and the border security issue.

“It’s very legitimate for challenger candidates to say, ‘What has Congressman X done to address immigration?'” he added.

That scenario may already be causing headaches for House Democratic leaders, who discussed the forthcoming Arizona ruling in their Monday leadership meeting, according to a senior Democratic aide.

The aide said the timing of the ruling is poor because it comes just as Democrats are heading home for a month to campaign on jobs and the economy. Party leaders acknowledged that immigration reform would be back in the public’s eye as a result of this week’s ruling, but “nobody wanted to talk about it,” the aide said.

Arizona Republican Rep. Jeff Flake, who opposes the lawsuit, predicted that the injunction would call more attention to the issue and could have political repercussions for three Arizona Democrats in swing districts — Reps. Gabrielle Giffords, Harry Mitchell and Ann Kirkpatrick. All three have tried to distance themselves from the lawsuit.

“Like it or not, people say: ‘They’re Democrats. This is a Democratic administration.’ So it’s going to be more difficult for them,” Flake said.

Kirkpatrick, who opposes the law as well as the administration’s challenge on the grounds that it diverts attention from acute border security needs, dismissed Flake’s prediction.

“It has nothing to do with politics,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s about securing the border, and my concern all along is that we get distracted with the lawsuit.”

Mitchell issued a statement saying that the partial injunction “should not provide Washington any kind of excuse not to address” border security and immigration reform.

Nevertheless, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus hailed the injunction. Rep. Raúl Grijalva said he almost cried when he heard the ruling. The Arizona Democrat said that in light of the injunction, he is abandoning his call for a boycott of Arizona as a destination for national conferences and events.

“With this decision, it’s off the table,” he said. “We’re going to encourage them to come and help us change the climate there.”