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Why Is Race Missing From Arizona Lawsuit?

A startling gap in the federal case against the anti-illegal immigration law

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The Department of Justice has now filed a lawsuit against Arizona's controversial anti-illegal immigration law. The law sparked widespread anger for requiring police to check the papers of anyone they suspect might be in the country illegally, which opponents say amounts to racial profiling. But bizarrely, the lawsuit isn't over civil rights issues. Rather, the federal government plans to argue that immigration policy is the federal government's job, not the states'. Commentators suggest there are some shrewd political calculations behind the move.

  • Avoiding Issue of Race James Doty at Salon is a bit taken aback by the absence of "any claim that the law encourages officers to racially profile Hispanic residents and violate their Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches--the aspects of the law that many people find the most objectionable." It's particularly "surprising," he says, because the argument that the government is making, that the law "impermissibly burdens the federal bureaucracy," probably won't be able to get rid of this controversial part: "it's hardly intuitive that verifying immigration status with federal officials would thwart the goals or policies of the feds." Doty says he can see where Obama's coming from, having been burned by the Jeremiah Wright flap long ago. Nevertheless, he maintains: "[this] might be the politically expedient course, but it falls far short of the standard for civic bravery that [Obama] set for himself and for us."
  • But Makes Same Point as AZ Law "The Obama administration's main argument is that the state law can't usurp federal law," reasons The Christian Science Monitor. "It explains that federal resources are too limited for states to start detaining such lawbreakers on their own and handing them over to federal agents for deportation." Yet, the editors argue, " that's nearly the same point behind the Arizona law." Obama "could have saved the country a divisive legal battle by simply being tougher on border security," they point out.
  • Courting Voters  Michael Graham at The Boston Herald argues that if the Obama administration were really concerned about states enforcing federal immigration policy, they'd sue Rhode Island, which "been doing local immigration enforcement for years now," he points out. "The glaring, obvious and painful answer is politics. Hispanics are a key part of the Democratic Party coalition, and many Latino voters are unhappy with President Obama's lack of action on amnesty for illegals."
  • Better Chance of Winning the Suit? "Ultimately," explains The American Prospect's Adam Serwer, "the Justice Department's strategy may reflect the concern over polling that shows Americans aren't as concerned about racial profiling as they are about immigration, and the recognition that if the challenge reaches the Supreme Court, it will have to persuade conservative justices who are more likely to be swayed by race-neutral arguments."
  • And If It Wins, a Further Reaching Case, points out Suzy Khimm at Mother Jones. If the Department of Justice wins the Arizona suit on this argument, "it could also challenge the laws that other states and towns have adopted, on the grounds that the federal government can't be preempted by local and state laws when it comes to immigration."
  • Designed to Placate Allies  Hans von Spakovsky at The Heritage Foundation is peeved, calling the move "a politically motivated lawsuit designed to placate the Administration's allies who believe in open borders and complete amnesty for all illegal aliens. Arizona should fight this suit as hard as it can."
  • Really? Do the Politics Check Out, Here? Commentary's Jennifer Rubin points to Politico analysis suggesting that, though the suit "could ... help boost turnout among Hispanic voters in key areas across the West," and help Obama "by revving up his own base in 2012," it's more likely to "[prompt] moderate white Western voters who are concerned about jobs to decamp to the GOP at least in the short
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.