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Justice Department Sues Arizona Over Immigration Law

The Department of Justice filed its hotly anticipated suit against Arizona’s immigration law today, after months of criticism of the law from the White House and immigrant rights advocates. The main thrust of the suit is that Arizona overstepped its bounds by enacting immigration legislation. Because immigration is already regulated under federal law, the suit alleges that Arizona’s decision to take the issue into its own hands violates the supremacy clause of the Constitution, which sets federal law as the “supreme law of the land,” and has been used to nullify state laws that run up against federal law.

The lawsuit argues that Arizona’s law hurts the federal government’s ability to meet its objectives in dealing with immigration:

S.B. 1070 pursues only one goal – “attrition” – and ignores the many other objectives that Congress has established for the federal immigration system. And even in pursuing attrition, S.B. 1070 disrupts federal enforcement priorities and resources that focus on aliens who pose a threat to national security or public safety. If allowed to go into effect, S.B. 1070’s mandatory enforcement scheme will conflict with and undermine the federal government’s careful balance of immigration enforcement priorities and objectives.

The suit also references “humanitarian concerns” such as “fear of persecution” and aid for the victims of national disasters in arguing that Congress “holds exclusive authority for establishing alien status categories and setting the conditions of aliens’ entry and continued presence.”

This method of argument may be frustrating for the 50 percent of Americans who think more needs to be done to curb illegal immigration. Obama’s push for immigration reform has no specific timetable and has not yet won Republican support. Frustrated with a lack of federal momentum, many states have decided to take up the issue.

If the Department of Justice is successful in shutting down the new Arizona law, it would be a major blow against state efforts to curb immigration. And they might have help from a case already on the Supreme Court docket: The Court decided last week to consider a different case on Arizona immigration law. In that case, the Chamber of Commerce is attempting to use a similar argument to overturn a 2007 Arizona law that punishes businesses for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling on that case in its next term.

Arizona’s SB 1070 is set to go into effect July 29, but the government is seeking an injunction to delay implementation until the case is resolved.

An announcement from the Department of Justice is expected later today.

Update: Here’s the statement from the Justice Department:

WASHINGTON – The Department of Justice challenged the state of Arizona’s recently passed immigration law, S.B. 1070, in federal court today.

In a brief filed in the District of Arizona, the Department said S.B. 1070 unconstitutionally interferes with the federal government’s authority to set and enforce immigration policy, explaining that “the Constitution and federal law do not permit the development of a patchwork of state and local immigration policies throughout the country.” A patchwork of state and local policies would seriously disrupt federal immigration enforcement. Having enacted its own immigration policy that conflicts with federal immigration law, Arizona “crossed a constitutional line.”

The Department’s brief said that S.B. 1070 will place significant burdens on federal agencies, diverting their resources away from high-priority targets, such as aliens implicated in terrorism, drug smuggling, and gang activity, and those with criminal records. The law’s mandates on Arizona law enforcement will also result in the harassment and detention of foreign visitors and legal immigrants, as well as U.S. citizens, who cannot readily prove their lawful status.

In declarations filed with the brief, Arizona law enforcement officials, including the Chiefs of Police of Phoenix and Tucson, said that S.B. 1070 will hamper their ability to effectively police their communities. The chiefs said that victims of or witnesses to crimes would be less likely to contact or cooperate with law enforcement officials and that implementation of the law would require them to reassign officers from critical areas such as violent crimes, property crimes, and home invasions.

The Department filed the suit after extensive consultation with Arizona officials, law enforcement officers and groups, and civil rights advocates. The suit was filed on behalf of the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of State, which share responsibilities in administering federal immigration law.

“Arizonans are understandably frustrated with illegal immigration, and the federal government has a responsibility to comprehensively address those concerns,” Attorney General Holder said. “But diverting federal resources away from dangerous aliens such as terrorism suspects and aliens with criminal records will impact the entire country’s safety. Setting immigration policy and enforcing immigration laws is a national responsibility. Seeking to address the issue through a patchwork of state laws will only create more problems than it solves.”

“With the strong support of state and local law enforcement, I vetoed several similar pieces of legislation as Governor of Arizona because they would have diverted critical law enforcement resources from the most serious threats to public safety and undermined the vital trust between local jurisdictions and the communities they serve,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said. “We are actively working with members of Congress from both parties to comprehensively reform our immigration system at the federal level because this challenge cannot be solved by a patchwork of inconsistent state laws, of which this is one. While this bipartisan effort to reform our immigration system progresses, the Department of Homeland Security will continue to enforce the laws on the books by enhancing border security and removing criminal aliens from this country.”

The Department has requested a preliminary injunction to enjoin enforcement of the law, arguing that the law’s operation will cause irreparable harm.

“Arizona impermissibly seeks to regulate immigration by creating an Arizona-specific immigration policy that is expressly designed to rival or supplant that of the federal government. As such, Arizona’s immigration policy exceeds a state’s role with respect to aliens, interferes with the federal government’s balanced administration of the immigration laws, and critically undermines U.S. foreign policy objectives. S.B. 1070 does not simply seek to provide legitimate support to the federal government’s immigration policy, but instead creates an unprecedented independent immigration scheme that exceeds constitutional boundaries,” the Department said in its brief.

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