Print options

July 06, 2010

US Justice Department Files Lawsuit Against Arizona Over Immigration Law

by Carolyn Presutti

The fierce debate in the United States over illegal immigration intensified this week as the Justice Department filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the southwestern state of Arizona's new law against illegal immigration.  

The law would require police to ask for proof of legal status in the United States, if there is reasonable suspicion that a person is in the country illegally.  It would be the first time that illegal immigration would violate a state law in addition to federal law.  

On Tuesday [7/6/10], the U.S. Justice Department filed a federal lawsuit against Arizona for having "crossed a constitutional line" that guarantees that federal law supersedes state law.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says immigration enforcement is the responsibility of the national government.

"Enforcement along this border and in those border states is primarily a federal responsibility," said Janet Napolitano. "That, we do that, but we need more manpower, more technology, more infrastructure to assist, that's part of our plan."

Supporters of the Arizona law say the federal government has not done enough to combat the problem of illegal immigrants crossing the southern U.S. border.

Arizona is the largest gateway into the United States for illegal immigrants and it is home to an estimated 460,000 people who have entered the country illegally.

Colby May is Senior Counsel for the Washington-based American Center for Law and Justice that focuses on constitutional law issues.

"Arizona is not trying to regulate immigration here," said Colby May. "They are not saying who can come and who can go.  They are simply passing a law that mirrors what the federal government has had on its books for 40 years.  And in that context, what is it that seems to be so shocking that the federal government is so surprised by?"

According to a recent public opinion survey by the Pew Research Center here in Washington, more than 60 percent of Americans approve of the Arizona law.

Last month, voters in the city of Fremont, Nebraska passed a measure that prohibits businesses from hiring and landlords from renting to illegal immigrants.  And last week, the governor of Tennessee signed a law requiring jailers to check the immigration status of prisoners.  Analysts say the future of laws such as these rests on the outcome of the Arizona case.

Steve Vladeck teaches constitutional law at American University here in Washington.  He predicts that the courts will rule against Arizona by upholding the Constitution's supremacy clause, which states that federal law takes precedence over a conflicting state law.

But Vladeck says Arizona will have achieved its goal, even if it loses the case.

"I don't think they have the power to do it [have a law on immigration]," said Steve Vladeck. "But I think they have accomplished what they wanted to in the beginning, which was to start a national conversation about immigration policy and immigration reform."

The federal government is requesting an injunction to stop Arizona from enforcing the law when it takes effect later this month.  With both sides vowing to take the case to court, analysts say the controversy could eventually end up before the Supreme Court of the United States.