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Arizona Immigration Law Stokes National Debate

A new law in the southwestern state of Arizona aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration has sparked an intense national debate over the issue that could have enormous political consequences for both U.S. political parties.

The new Arizona law goes into effect in a few months and requires law enforcement officials to question people if there is reason to believe they are in the country illegally.

Civil rights groups are challenging the new law in court, arguing it effectively gives police the right to use racial profiling to go after suspected illegal immigrants.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says the Obama administration is also considering a challenge to the new law.

The controversial Arizona law has rekindled an intense national debate about what the United States should do about illegal immigration.

A new Gallup Poll found that 39 percent of those asked support the Arizona law, 30 percent oppose it and 31 percent either have no opinion or haven't heard of it.

Passions on both sides of the issue are running high.

Bishop Minerva Carcano is with the United Methodist Church in Phoenix, Arizona, and she and other church leaders there worry about the impact of the new law on the immigrant population.

"They were devastated and they were afraid.  They fear that they will be stopped for being brown, that their immigrant parents will be deported and that their families will be separated and trampled by a rampant hatred that is out of control in Arizona," said Carcano.

But others support the new law as an attempt to get a handle on a growing problem.  There are about 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, with about 460,000 of those residing in Arizona.

Republican members of Congress from Arizona and from neighboring states say the federal government is not doing enough to stem the tide of illegal immigrants.

Texas Republican Congressman Ted Poe is among several lawmakers calling on President Barack Obama to send National Guard troops down to the southwestern border to beef up security.

"We need the full support of the federal government.  This country protects the borders of other nations better than it protects our own border, and it is important at this time that we make this border security issue a priority for the national security of the United States," said Poe.

The controversy over the Arizona law has spread around the country, says Rutgers University political expert Ross Baker.

"The stakes here are very high.  There are 460,000 estimated illegal aliens in Arizona.  It is a tremendous issue in the state.  If you believe the public opinion polls, Governor Brewer was supported pretty strongly by people in Arizona, but it has created an enormous amount of consternation throughout the country including threats of boycotts," Baker said.

Civil rights leaders and some celebrities are calling for a boycott against Arizona over the new law.

Some Democrats in Congress hope the controversy could spark a renewed effort at comprehensive immigration reform, which would include tighter border controls and offer many illegal immigrants already in the country a path to citizenship.

But political experts, including Ross Baker of Rutgers, say finding bipartisan support for immigration reform during an election year will be very difficult.

Baker says cracking down on illegal immigration remains a potent national issue in advance of November's congressional midterm elections.

"Members of Congress are acutely aware of who can vote and who can't.  Much of the uproar against illegal immigration comes from Americans over the age of 55.  All the public opinion polls show this.  One of the other things that politicians know about people over the age of 55 is that they are most likely to show up and vote," he said.

Hispanic-American voters are growing in numbers and influence, and Baker believes Republicans risk antagonizing those voters if they push too hard on the issue of immigration enforcement.

"But everybody acknowledges that in the long run, when more Latinos get citizenship, it will be a very, very powerful voting bloc," Baker added.

Republican analysts counter that Hispanic-American voters are not always a unified political group.  Scot Faulkner served in the Reagan administration in the 1980's and worked for the Republican majority in the House of Representatives in the 1990's.

"Hispanics are not a monolith.  As you start to deconstruct the Hispanic population into their countries of origin, it is not a monolithic political bloc in terms of their interests and even their leanings," said Faulkner.

President Obama has said he would like Congress to pass an immigration reform bill that strengthens border security and creates a process for illegal immigrants to become citizens.  But the president also conceded that it may not be possible for Congress to pass such a bill during this politically polarized election year.

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