The Politics of Obama's Arizona Lawsuit

Since Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed the state's controversial immigration law in April, opponents have argued it would unfairly lead to racial profiling. One critic has been President Obama, whose administration divulged in June that it would sue to overturn the law. But the lawsuit, filed Tuesday, didn't mention racial profiling. Instead, it claimed the new measure was unconstitutional because it stepped on federal laws governing immigration.

In the end, those could be just details. Obama may want to change the fundamentals of a law he deems unjust, but broader political calculations are also at play. That's because whether the Justice Department wins or loses its lawsuit, the court action is a win for the Obama administration in at least one respect: it undermines criticism that the president has done nothing when it comes to immigration reform.

Since Obama took office, immigration advocates have watched him tackle health care and financial reform, pass a wide-ranging economic stimulus package, and push for a new energy policy. His first formal speech on immigration did not come until last week, and even then he spoke broadly, noting that reform could not happen without wider political support than currently exists in Congress. But taking on the Arizona law gives Obama a chance to get tough and score points, even if the suit isn't successful. "Hispanics and others are still waiting for the administration to take action. This is a form of action," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "I'm not sure from this president's point of view that there are any risks."

The Arizona law would take effect July 29. Among other things, it will require police making a "lawful stop, detention, or arrest" to check a person's immigration status if they reasonably suspect the person is in the country illegally. Unlike many of the assaults on the measure, the Justice Department lawsuit does not attack it for targeting Hispanics. Instead, the administration argues that Congress intended immigration to be enforced uniformly across the country and that the Arizona law is stricter than federal law in many respects. For example, Arizona's law makes it a crime for unlawful immigrants to apply for a job, while federal law says the person who hires the immigrant is the criminal offender, not the employee.

Pointing to polls showing Americans support the law, Republicans say the lawsuit is a risk to Democrats in the short term, even if it wins points with constituencies that supported Obama in 2008. GOP candidates in Arizona and other Western states may be salivating at the chance to paint Democratic opponents as weak on illegal immigration in this fall's midterm elections. Three congressional Democrats seeking to hold their offices in Arizona have criticized the suit for distracting attention from more important problems with immigration law. Advocates have not unanimously supported it either: the president of reform group ImmigrationWorks USA told Politico that the suit was "tantamount to dropping a nuclear bomb" on Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republican whip, who could be a key ally in passing new federal immigration law.

Still, Obama's action has the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, National Immigration Law Center, National Day Laborer Organizing Network, and other groups that believe the Arizona law encourages stereotyping. It's also not clear if Republicans will be able to make the issue resonate outside Arizona. Immigration has historically been a ballot-box issue for conservative Republicans and Latinos, but "for everybody else, this is a secondary concern," says Simon Rosenberg of NDN, a progressive think tank. Rosenberg suggested support for the Arizona law could erode as the legal fight over it continues, exposing politicians to criticism that the back-and-forth is more about politics than reforming immigration law. That legal battle may eventually reach the Supreme Court, but whatever the ruling, no one will be able to say that Obama shied from the fight.