PHOENIX Arizona's tough new immigration law has renewed calls for Washington to reform federal immigration laws, and protesters decried the state's action as a violation of civil rights at a rally on Sunday in the state's capital.
Representative Luis Gutierrez, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Immigration Task Force, called the new Arizona rule that police determine if people are in the country illegally a "serious civil rights catastrophe that Republicans in Arizona are unleashing on immigrants."
"I am going there to let the people of Arizona know that they are not alone in fighting against bigotry and hatred," said Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat.
The immigration reform issue's profile soared after Arizona's Republican Governor Jan Brewer on Friday signed into law a bill to require police to determine if people are in the country illegally if there is "reasonable suspicion" that is the case -- which critics charge will open the door to racial profiling.
The measure is expected to spark a legal challenge and is already a hot issue in the run-up to November congressional elections and one on which minority Republicans are seen as more vulnerable.
"I have not seen the Latino community nationwide react in such a forceful way to an attack on immigrants since 2006, just after House Republicans passed a measure to criminalize and deport all undocumented immigrants and their families," he added.
President Barack Obama called the Arizona law a "misguided" effort that showed the need for national reform.
Senate and House of Representative Democratic leaders said last week they were considering bringing immigration reform up for debate ahead of another of Obama's priorities, climate change legislation.
Immigration is a bitterly contested issue in the United States, where some 10.8 million illegal immigrants live and work in the shadows. But until recently it has been eclipsed at the national level by issues including healthcare and financial reform, angering many Latino supporters of Obama.
Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, asked on CNN's "State of the Nation" if Hispanic-American voters might be stay home without a serious effort by Obama to deal with immigration this year, said that although it was a national issue, "there is a problem in the Latino community. They see it as a civil rights issue of their time."
Echoing this sentiment, Ramon M. Garcia, an activist who traveled from Tucson to take part in Sunday's rally said, "I feel very strongly that the law is extremely unconstitutional and racist, and it violates both human and civil rights."
Jennifer Allen, the executive-director of immigrant rights group the Border Action Network, said the protest sought to boost voter registration among Arizonans opposed to the law, in a bid to turn Brewer out office in the state's gubernatorial elections in November.
"Governor Brewer has to be held responsible for signing what is now an international shame on the state of Arizona," Allen told Reuters.
A call seeking comment from Governor Brewer's office on Sunday was not immediately returned.
An estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants live in the desert state, which also straddles the main point of entry for illegal immigrants crossing into the United States from Mexico.
(Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor; writing by Eric Walsh and Jackie Frank)