Politics

Immigration Suit Is Big Political Gamble

Democrats in the Southwest could face voter wrath as a result of the Justice Department action against Arizona

The federal-state high noon in Arizona over immigration is a political powder keg -- at least in the short term.

Western conservatives and anti-immigration groups will benefit for now as the federal government and the Obama administration seem incapable of slowing illegal immigration or even taking a hard stand. The Justice Department lawsuit, aimed at blocking Arizona’s new law on constitutional grounds, won’t do anything to address illegal immigration, and many in Arizona and elsewhere are eager to see if the state law will work. Public opinion polls show widespread support for the law, which makes it a state crime for illegal immigrants to be in Arizona.

Unless the state law is blocked by the courts, it will take effect July 29. That will lead to a torrent of both applause and criticism: Applause from conservative corners and states’ rights activists for striking at least some fear in illegal immigrants. Lots of criticism, too -- charges of police harassment of legal citizens, wrongful detentions and reports and You Tube videos of anything even remotely resembling racial profiling. It’s a true mess.

Obama’s problem is that there aren’t any surefire or short-term policy or enforcement fixes. A locked-tight, secure Southwestern border, as many conservatives want before agreeing to work on larger immigration reform, is a fantasy. So is the belief that the 1,200 National Guard troops Obama is sending to the border and the purchase of more high-tech night vision equipment will have anything beyond a minimal impact.

Add to the troubling mix, there’s no true will in Congress or the administration to overhaul immigration laws this year -- despite presidential speechifying to the contrary. Western Democrats, in particular, will be careful in the near term not to tread anywhere near proposals that critics label amnesty. It’s politically easier for them not to take a position for the time being and hope that the campaign debate moves to another subject.

Time will fast run out for anything as complicated and passion fueled as immigration reform. Longer term, the Arizona showdown could spark more serious efforts at immigration overhaul. Republicans don’t want to further alienate Hispanic minorities in the next presidential election, and Democrats want something to prove that they are serious about overhauling immigration and dealing with the 11 million illegal immigrants already here. Also, businesses will step up pressure on both parties for progress, such as pushing the development of tamper-proof biometric identity cards for legal residents.

There’ll be far more heat than light on immigration for months yet. The best window for serious reform will be next year after the midterm, as passions cool a bit, or in 2013 after the presidential election.

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