Will the Justice Department Sue Arizona over its Illegal Immigration Law?

Law-enforcement officers from cities in Arizona and a half dozen states met today with Attorney General Eric Holder in an hourlong, closed-door meeting to share their frustration with the new Arizona immigration law, saying it will make their jobs more difficult and even increase crime.

The question on many people’s minds, however, is whether Holder will sue Arizona over the law. “He did say the Justice Department was seriously considering what they will do and that a decision will come soon,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, who took part in the talks. Los Angeles Chief of Police Charlie Beck said that Holder had listened closely to their concerns but “was not committal” on legal action. (Supporters of the Arizona law argue that it was carefully crafted to combat any legal challenges). The chiefs said they were not in Washington to urge the Justice Department to seek legal action, but to air their concerns. Fox News has reported that a team of Justice Department lawyers has drafted a challenge to the law and recommended action.

John Harris, president of the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police, said the new law puts police in an impossible bind: On the one hand they can be accused of racial profiling. On the other hand they can sued by citizens who feel they are not enforcing the law strongly enough. “This puts Arizona law enforcement right in the middle, which is not where we want to be. Especially for something we feel is a federal issue.” The police chiefs, many in charge of regions with large immigrant populations, said they feared crime could rise, in part, because immigrants would be afraid to report suspicious activity or come forward as witnesses.

A case in point: in North Carolina an illegal immigrant called 911 as a police officer tried to fondle his girlfriend during a traffic stop. The man, Abel Moreno, now has six months to prove why he should not be deported even though local police have acknowledged that the call helped them uncover a dirty cop who had assaulted several other women. (The sheriff’s office that held Moreno is one of several dozen local law-enforcement agencies that are allowed to apply Section 287(g) laws that make it possible to enforce federal immigration laws). 

Arturo Venegas, project director of the Law Enforcement Engagement Initiative and a former Sacramento police chief, says the Justice Department “must weigh in.” He says that, among other problems, the DOJ’s civil-rights division will be overwhelmed with cases. “This is becoming a national phenomenon with a dozen other states contemplating similar laws,” Venegas says. “This will become a constitutional crisis.”