No Win in Arizona

Today, a federal judge will hear arguments on whether Arizona's controversial "papers, please" immigration law, SB 1070, should go into effect next Thursday as planned. The Justice Department -- which is arguing that SB 1070 usurps the federal government's constitutional authority to regulate citizenship -- has asked for a preliminary injunction until the court can try the case.

The hearing and subsequent decision represent the first major legal showdown over the divisive bill, which requires police to question people about their citizenship during routine encounters. Immigrant-rights supporters and the Hispanic community say it is a racially motivated attack on civil rights while proponents of SB 1070 argue it is necessary given the federal government's failure to "secure the borders."

In typical conciliatory fashion, President Barack Obama has straddled the fence on immigration. By bringing the case, the administration is showing it sympathizes with the concerns of the immigrant and Hispanic communities. But in a move that makes for some strange optics, on Monday the Obama administration set an Aug. 1 deployment date for the 1,200 National Guard troops the president had pledged to seal the border. This much is clear: Whether or not Judge Susan Bolton stops the law from going into effect, Obama has already let the immigration issue get away from him.

No matter what Judge Bolton decides, immigration-enforcement proponents are unlikely to be satisfied. These are people who are convinced -- all evidence to the contrary -- that the sunny vacation destination of Arizona is under violent siege. And they're further convinced Obama is doing nothing about it. Truth is, crime in Arizona, even along the border, is low and has been falling for years: Between 2002 and 2009, the number of violent crimes per year has decreased by 12 percent, even as the state's population has swelled by over half a million. Obama has not only sent thousands of troops to the border and given a $500 million funding bump to enforcement efforts; he has been deporting undocumented immigrants at record rates.

Despite good news about crime and additional federal efforts, Gov. Jan Brewer has been putting signs up all over the Grand Canyon state reading "Danger, Public Warning -- Travel Not Recommended" (watch her campy video plug here). Given the convictions of enforcement zealots, it is pretty easy to predict how they will react to the federal court's ruling on the preliminary injunction. If SB 1070 goes into effect, they will portray it as a win -- at least a temporary one -- over soft-on-enforcement Obama; if it doesn't, they'll accuse the president of interfering with the state's response to an imaginary crisis.

The key to understanding how the secure-our-borders crowd understands SB 1070, and immigration generally, is this: You can never be too tough on enforcement. Any attempt to set limits on how far police can go amounts to being "soft," and trying to prevent civil-rights abuses is seen as getting in the way of justice.

Hispanic voters -- 70 percent of whom oppose the Arizona law -- also aren't going to get what they want. Despite their support for the Justice Department's suit, advocates say the real solution to SB 1070 and similar laws is passing comprehensive immigration reform. The administration's lawsuit is viewed by many as less of a proactive step than a necessary reaction.

"The government had to react; they had to step in," says Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of the New Democrat Network. "[SB 1070] is a legitimate challenge to federal authority."

Even before SB 1070 came on the scene, the president's failure to reform the immigration system was sapping his support among Hispanics, who voted for him by a nearly four-to-five margin over McCain. Obama's approval ratings among Hispanics have fallen by 12 percent since the beginning of the year. Even if the law doesn't go into effect, support for Obama among this key constituency will continue to erode absent positive federal action on immigration.

However, if Judge Bolton decides SB 1070 can take effect on July 29, the outcry from the Hispanic community will be deafening. It would be an unmitigated disaster for civil rights in the state: Police will be required to stop and question people on the basis of (according to the state's training manual) "dress," "demeanor," and "being in an overcrowded vehicle" -- all thinly veiled proxies for race. For the Obama administration, it would be a political disaster; Hispanic leaders would continue to blame the president for failing to pass comprehensive immigration reform, as Rep. Luis Gutierrez did shortly after SB 1070 was passed.

In short, whether or not SB 1070 goes into effect next week, no one's going to be happy. Putting off comprehensive immigration reform has exacerbated existing tensions and led to radical solutions like the Arizona law. Had Obama been able to push immigration reform through in his first year, a bill like SB 1070 would have been impossible; if you provide a path to citizenship for the 12 million immigrants currently living in the country, a law targeting the undocumented will not accomplish much. The Justice Department's lawsuit against Arizona is the administration cleaning up its own mess.

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