Obama Taking Risk in Challenging the Arizona Immigration Law

President Obama gets accused of a lot of things, but it would be tough to argue that his administration’s constitutional challenge of Arizona’s anti-illegal-immigration law was poll-driven. Because even though you might not know it from some of the media coverage, Arizona’s new law is really, really popular. Poll after poll since the bill was signed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer show that Americans are strongly in favor of the legislation, and they even want their own state lawmakers to follow Arizona’s lead. But Obama’s Justice Department is seeking an injunction that will stop the law from taking effect on July 29 on the grounds that federal law trumps state—kind of the political equivalent of when the FBI guy shows up and takes over the local murder investigation on Law & Order. Dun-dun!

But back to the polls: a recent example from The Washington Post shows about six in 10 are in favor of the legislation that gives Arizona police the power to check the residency status of people they’ve stopped if the officer suspects the person might be in the country illegally. Indeed, much has been made of the Arizona requirement that immigrants must carry papers. But the U.S. government’s “Guide for New Immigrants” already states that “it is your responsibility” as a legal immigrant to “carry proof of your permanent resident status at all times.”

Since SB1070 was first signed into law in April, leading papers like The New York Times have written stories that flip the issue on its head, with headlines like “Arizona Law Reveals Split Within GOP” and “Will Arizona’s Immigration Law Survive?” (According to the Post poll, nearly 80 percent of Republicans support the law. Some split.) The Associated Press has reported the law will actually increase crime, and the Los Angeles Times and most other big papers have focused on the boycotts and protests. Not many have written stories like “New Law Proves Popular With Constituents” or “Governor Reflects Will of People.”

Why the disconnect? After reading stories on the issue for weeks, much of the coverage I’ve seen has been tilted against the law. The reason is probably that the media is made up of mostly left-leaning types who favor unfettered immigration, but then I also tend to read papers and magazines that exist in the East Coast liberal-media echo chamber. There also seemed to be scant coverage of the fact that Arizona officials removed the word “solely” from language that said the police could not “solely consider race …” as a factor when determining reasonable suspicion that someone was an illegal, so ethnic origin or race cannot be used. “Lawful contact” with police officers was also changed to “stop, detain or arrest,” further lessening the chances of racial profiling.

And I’m willing to concede that just because it polls well doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, but are all of these people who like the law just racist yahoos, as one might think by the shrill reaction of many pundits? The answer is no. In fact, about the same number who support Arizona’s law also think we should come up with a way to allow the people who are currently living in the country illegally to remain, as long as they pay a fine or meet other requirements. Some of those people must be overlapping, so maybe it’s possible—I’m just throwing it out there—to be a kind person with an open heart, but still think the Arizona law is not that over the top.

The Post poll wasn’t the only one showing how popular the law is around the country. According to the results of a Quinnipiac University Polling Institute poll taken in late May, nearly half of roughly 2,000 registered voters said they wanted their own states to pass a similar law. Only one in three did not. Voters overwhelmingly approved of the Arizona law—by 20 points—51 to 31, and nearly half think it would help reduce illegal immigration. A Rasmussen poll taken after the Justice decision found 56 percent against the fed challenge, with only 28 percent supporting it.

An earlier Pew poll showed that nearly 75 percent of Americans support the idea of requiring people to produce papers proving citizenship, and a Wall Street Journal poll showed that 64 percent of Americans support the law. Democrats should pay close attention to these numbers with the midterm elections rolling up: 61 percent of independents support the law, as do 40 percent of Dems, even though it’s an issue that could motivate the party’s liberal base and Hispanic voters.

These numbers weren’t from Fox & Friends or the Drudge Report. These are legit polling operations. A CBS poll found 52 percent thought the law “about right.” To be fair, nearly 20 percent more disagreed—but that’s because they didn’t think the law went far enough. So if you’re adding up at home, that’s about 70 percent who like the law or want an even stronger one.

Well, so what? What are we to do with this polling information? And don’t we always preach that our leaders should lead and not follow polls? We do when the polls disagree with what we want. Obama is following the polls that matter most to him: the ones that say most Democrats don’t like the Arizona law. But he’s the president of the whole country, and the right answer is for Congress and his administration to finally act on immigration reform in a broad, comprehensive way, or else expect another 49 Arizonas. Already, according to AP, as many as 20 more states are at least contemplating the idea of acting on their own. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Those actions might be put on hold temporarily by Obama’s bold legal move, and as a side benefit he might have finally figured out a way to plug the BP problem: the leak will be filled by all the tea that’s going to be dumped in the ocean from now until the midterms in November.

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