Feds aim to fight Arizona on border control
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WASHINGTON -- Top Justice Department officials have drafted a legal challenge that could be filed in federal court in Arizona asserting that the state's new immigration law is unconstitutional because it impinges on the federal government's inherent authority to police the nation's Southwest border with Mexico, sources said Wednesday.
At the same time, the government officials said, the department's civil rights division is considering possible legal action against the law on the basis that it amounts to racial profiling of Latinos who are legally in Arizona, but conceivably could be asked to provide documents proving their citizenship.
Attorney General Eric Holder met Wednesday with 10 police chiefs who object to the law, and promised them that he would act "soon" on the recommendations, a spokesman said.
The police chiefs urged him and the Obama administration, which has reservations about the Arizona law, to stop it from going into effect, because they said it would seriously hamper local police work if officers are asked to serve as border police.
"He did say that the Justice Department is seriously considering what they would do, and that could come very soon," said Chuck Wexler, director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank that helped coordinate the meeting between the police chiefs and Mr. Holder.
One chief who met with Mr. Holder was Los Angeles' Charlie Beck, who afterward said he told Mr. Holder that "legislation like this inhibits us from doing our jobs" and will deter immigrants from reporting crimes, either as victims or witnesses.
"The fear of the police already inhibits immigrants from coming forward to a certain extent," he said. "But if you add this, you increase the reluctance tenfold.
"People should remember that undocumented immigrants are witnesses in all kinds of crime, and this does not just affect them. If people don't come forward to help the police solve ... crime, no matter what their status, then we are doomed to failure," Chief Beck said. "It threatens to destroy a lot of the work that has been done."
He added that his officers are guided by a different set of rules than those laid out in the Arizona law. For more than three decades, he said, his agency has followed a policy that prohibits officers from initiating contact with someone solely to determine whether he or she is in the country legally.
A dozen or more states are considering legislation mirroring Arizona's law, which takes effect in July. That groundswell of support is part of what is pushing Mr. Holder and the White House to consider swift action against the Arizona law.
Department of Justice chief spokesman Matthew Miller acknowledged that Mr. Holder had told the chiefs that a decision on any federal action will come "soon." But he also cautioned that "the review is still on. There's really not been any decisions yet. We're still working on it, and it's still being discussed internally."
Echoing concerns raised by Mr. Obama and Mr. Holder, the chiefs told the attorney general in their closed-door meeting that the problem with the Arizona law is it will break down trust between crime victims and witnesses and police officers in their communities. Three chiefs meeting with Mr. Holder were from Arizona: Jack Harris of Phoenix, Roberto Villasenor of Tucson and John W. Harris of Sahuarita, who also serves as president of the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police.
Under Arizona's law, police are required to seek documents from people stopped because of a "reasonable suspicion" that they are in the country illegally. The offense would be similar to criminal trespassing, and violators would then be turned over to federal authorities for deportation.
Despite opposition to the law within the Obama administration, many Americans support it; some polls show that as many as 70 percent of respondents are in favor of giving local police authority to check on someone's legal status in the United States.
Likewise, not all top U.S. police officials are against the law. In Arizona, some wholeheartedly support it. They include Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in the Phoenix area, who has long railed against the influx of undocumented immigrants there, and Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, head of the Arizona Sheriff's Association.
First Published May 27, 2010 12:00 am