WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Tuesday sued Arizona over the state’s strict new immigration law, attempting to wrestle back control over the issue but infuriating Republicans who said the border required more security.
The administration argued the Arizona law, which requires state and local police to investigate the immigration status of anyone they reasonably suspect of being an illegal immigrant, is unconstitutional and would sap law enforcement resources.
The Republican-controlled Arizona legislature passed the controversial law to try to stem the flood of thousands of illegal immigrants who cross its border from Mexico and to cut down on drug trafficking and other crimes in the area.
The lawsuit is part of a broader approach by President Barack Obama to deal with the 10.8 million illegal immigrants believed to be in the country, arguing that immigration is the responsibility of the federal government not each state.
“Seeking to address the issue through a patchwork of state laws will only create more problems than it solves,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, said in a statement.
The legal action, filed while Congress was on a week-long break, is a political gamble by the administration as a Pew Research Center poll showed 59 percent of people approve of the Arizona crackdown.
And the legal fight also comes at a critical juncture, four months ahead of the mid-term congressional elections, and the Hispanic community has been a major voting bloc that typically has sided with Democrats but Republicans have tried to woo.
The Justice Department filed the lawsuit in federal court in Arizona and asked for an injunction to prevent the law from taking effect on July 29.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer condemned the lawsuit as a waste of taxpayer funds and said the state law was needed because the federal government had not done its job.
“As a direct result of failed and inconsistent federal enforcement, Arizona is under attack from violent Mexican drug and immigrant smuggling cartels. Now, Arizona is under attack in federal court from President Obama and his Department of Justice,” Brewer, a Republican, said in a statement.
Brewer vowed to fight the lawsuit and said she had set up a legal defense fund to cover legal fees stemming from the federal challenge and other lawsuits.
The Justice Department acknowledged that Arizona legislators had “legitimate concerns” about illegal immigration but noted that the U.S. Constitution gave the federal government sole authority over immigration matters.
The Arizona law would also divert critical law enforcement resources and would cause the “detention and harassment of authorized visitors, immigrants and citizens” who do not have to carry identification papers, the department said.
Some immigration provisions provide exceptions to illegal immigrants on humanitarian grounds, whether the individuals were fleeing natural disasters or political persecution, the Justice Department added.
The Obama administration warned in the lawsuit that other states were considering similar immigration measures which would result in “further and significant damage” to U.S. relations with countries like Mexico, which last month joined a lawsuit seeking to derail the Arizona law.
Mexico’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday expressed “satisfaction” at the Obama administration’s move to challenge the state law.
“The Mexican government will continue to follow this process closely, and stands by its firm commitment to protect the rights of Mexicans abroad,” the ministry said in a statement.
The lawsuit drew fierce criticism from Russell Pearce, the Arizona state legislator who authored the law. “Shame on them. This is malfeasance and they are in violation of their oaths of office,” he told Reuters after the lawsuit was filed.
A Justice Department official said that if the court refused an injunction, the federal government would closely monitor enforcement of the Arizona law for possible illegal racial profiling or other civil rights violations.
Obama has warned that the Arizona law could lead to a patchwork of different laws passed by the various U.S. states and said that the matter should be resolved at the federal level by Congress.
The U.S. leader last week gave his first major speech on immigration reform since taking office, calling for both parties to join together to pass a comprehensive measure, but the issue has largely been overshadowed by the economic crisis and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Obama has backed allowing undocumented immigrants in good standing to pay a fine, learn English and become citizens. He also has supported tightening border security and clamping down on employers that hire undocumented workers.
But opposing Republicans have said that border security must be significantly improved before dealing with the millions of illegal immigrants, many of them Hispanics, in the country.
Obama has pledged to spend an extra $600 million and send up to 1,200 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to tighten security, however the initial steps to do so have been criticized by Republicans as too little to address the matter.
The suit came after the U.S. Supreme Court said last week that it would decide whether another Arizona law that punishes employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants infringed on federal immigration powers.
The case is United States of America v. State of Arizona et al; Case No. 10-cv-1413 in U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona.
Additional reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix; editing by Paul Simao