WASHINGTON (CN) – Arizona overstepped its authority in drafting a new immigration law, a Justice Department official said Thursday, explaining the government’s decision earlier this week to take legal action. “This is a state statute that crosses the line in terms of impinging on federal authority,” said Associate Deputy Attorney General Juan Osuna. “It puts Arizona in the driver’s seat instead of the federal government.”
Arizona erred in “setting forth its own enforcement regime on federal policy,” Osuna said at a panel discussion at the Brookings Institute.
The Justice Department sued Arizona Tuesday in federal court, challenging the state’s authority to pass its own immigration policy. The Arizona law, which takes effect July 29, requires state and local law enforcement to stop and question individuals suspected of being illegal immigrants.
The Justice Department has requested an injunction to block the law from going into effect, arguing that the statute conflicts with federal immigration law and is therefore preempted by the Supremacy Clause in the U.S. Constitution. Osuna said the agency decided to frame the lawsuit as a matter of federal and states’ rights instead of civil rights, because the law’s potential discriminatory impact will not be clear until the law goes into effect.
Last week, President Obama gave a speech arguing against a state-by-state patchwork of immigration laws and calling for Congress to take up immigration reform.
Osuna said he did not expect immigration reform to be passed in Congress until after November elections, due to deep, lingering partisan divides after the prolonged debate over health care reform. Osuna said true reform would require widespread bipartisan support, not just Democratic votes paired with “token” Republican support.
“It’s looking very tough for passage of comprehensive immigration reform in 2010, absent a change,” Osuna said.
He said the volatile situation in Arizona could become such a catalyst.
“The fear, anxiety and emotional component is just so strong,” he said.
Osuna said the biggest issue related to illegal immigration is border security. “Democrats have to be tough on that issue otherwise they will be massacred by Republicans and other issues of reform won’t have a chance,” Osuna said.
Other major facets of immigration reform besides border security include interior enforcement against illegal immigrants already in the United States, a more robust employment verification system, such as a Social Security card including biometrics, a path to citizenship and changes to the existing legal immigration system.
The Justice Department is gearing up for federal immigration reform by hiring more immigration judges, Osuna said. The country now has 235 immigration judges that hear 400,000 matters a year. The department is hiring 47 judges in 2010 and requested an additional 21 for 2011.
Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research, cited new study results showing that a majority of voters support the new Arizona law, not because they agreed with the law’s policies, but out of frustration with the current system.
“People still feel overwhelmingly that this problem needs a federal solution,” Lake said.
Of those who supported the Arizona law, 52 percent said they supported it because the federal government has failed to solve the problem.
A majority of voters, 57 percent, support Congress passing comprehensive immigration reform, while 18 percent are opposed. Among Latino voters, 60 percent support comprehensive immigration reform.
More than three-quarters of voters want Congress to take up the issue now.
“There is no appetite for waiting on this issue,” Lake said. “Opinions of Congress right now are as low as illegal immigrants. People want Congress to take some kind of action.”
There are an estimated 10 million to 12 million people living in the United States illegally, 30 to 40 percent of whom have likely overstayed their visas.