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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Arizona's controversial new immigration law will strain police ties to the community, sap limited law enforcement resources and could lead to an increase in crime, a group of police chiefs told U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday.
The meeting between Holder and eight police chiefs came as the attorney general is weighing whether to file a legal challenge to the Arizona law, which takes effect on July 29 and would require officers to determine the immigration status of any person they suspect of being in the country illegally.
The Arizona law seeks to drive illegal immigrants from the desert state, the principal corridor for unauthorized migrants entering the country from Mexico, and a busy entry point for Mexican cartels smuggling drugs to a voracious U.S. market.
Critics argue the law is unconstitutional and a mandate for racial profiling.
After the hour-long session, the police chiefs -- including two from Arizona -- said that while illegal immigration is a problem, the federal government should be responsible for handling it.
"The immigration system is broken as is, so we need to work on that," Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck told reporters, adding that "local law enforcement is not the solution to this broken system."
The meeting came a day after President Barack Obama said he would send up to 1,200 National Guard troops to the U.S. border with Mexico and he tried to sway Senate Republicans to join his effort to craft federal immigration reform legislation.
Republicans have insisted that border security be bolstered first before deciding how to deal with the roughly 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
Tucson police chief Roberto Villasenor told reporters the Arizona law could reverse recent declines in violent and property crimes.
"When you enact legislation that makes any subset of that community feel like they are being targeted specifically or have concerns about coming forward and talking to police, that damages our capability to obtain information to solve the crimes," Villasenor said.
He said requiring officers to verify the immigration status of all arrested individuals would sap their limited resources.
"We are stretched very thin right now and it's getting nothing but worse in our communities in terms of the budget crises," said John Harris, president of the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police. "We don't have enough resources to continue to do this and to take on another responsibility."
The police chiefs said Holder gave them no specific timeframe for his decision on whether the Justice Department would file a legal challenge to the Arizona law and a Justice Department spokesman also declined to comment on timing.
"The attorney general thought the police chiefs raised important concerns about the impact the Arizona law will have on the ability of law enforcement to keep communities safe," said his spokesman Matthew Miller.
The immigration issue is setting up a tough political battle before the November congressional elections.
A poll by NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo released on Wednesday found that Republican candidates stand to gain by making the Arizona immigration law a political issue in the campaign.
Forty percent of registered voters said they would side with a Republican congressional candidate who supported the state law. Just 26 percent said they would back a Democratic candidate who opposed it.
Overall, 61 percent of the respondents to the poll said they backed the Arizona law, while 60 percent said they would support comprehensive immigration reform legislation.
Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky, editing by David Alexander and Sandra Maler