In a partial and last minute victory for opponents of the new Arizona immigration law, a federal judge on Wednesday blocked its most controversial components just hours before the crackdown was set to go into effect.
The decision, which Arizona is expected to appeal, serves as a boost to the Obama administration's lawsuit challenging the measure as unconstitutional. It also raises the stakes of a showdown poised to influence the course of the national immigration debate. Whatever the outcome, it seems, this will dampen already grim prospects for reform and politically benefit Republicans in the short run.
US District Judge Susan Bolton placed holds on provisions requiring Arizona police to demand residency papers from individuals based on suspicions, and delayed implementation of clauses making it illegal not to carry documentation at all times. Bolton declared that the measure "burdens lawfully-present aliens because their liberty will be restricted while their status is checked."
Echoing the Justice Department's argument that the task of enforcing immigration laws belongs to the federal government, Bolton added that the statutes "would impose a 'distinct, unusual and extraordinary' burden on legal resident aliens that only the federal government has the authority to impose."
The S.B. 1070 measure's enactment in April by Gov. Jan Brewer set off a firestorm of criticism from civil rights groups, which argued that it unfairly targets Hispanics and people of color legally in the United States, reigniting an explosive national debate on immigration policy.
The law polls well nationally -- partly because Americans are desperate for an immigration overhaul, and support action on the part of states amidst Washington inaction -- and has become an issue in the November midterm elections.
The immediate impact of the ruling will be to tame the copycat laws percolating in legislatures of at least five states. At the same time, it will infuriate and galvanize Republicans, who strongly back the Arizona crackdown, in the midst of an already harsh election climate for Democrats.
A legal victory for President Obama could inject new fire into GOP efforts at stonewalling immigration reform, as they will likely use it to claim Democrats aren't serious about controlling the border. Republicans, some of whose votes are necessary to pass a bill, have unanimously refused to consider broad reforms until after border issues are dealt with; Democrats argue that enforcement must be viewed as one aspect of a comprehensive effort.
The seemingly irresolvable issue of how to deal with existing illegal immigration further complicates reform prospects. Republicans appear immutably opposed to any kind of legalization program, while omitting such a program is a nonstarter for too many Democrats.
Another obstacle for reformers is that Republicans have succeeded in making sure border security dominates the debate, while Democrats have done a poor job conveying that the immigration system's problems run much deeper, and that fixing them requires a wholesome approach. Democrats also seldom emphasized the broad public support for offering undocumented workers a path to citizenship. According to a new CNN poll, 81 percent support such a program; 19 percent are opposed.
The stalemate encompasses even less controversial, piecemeal provisions such as the DREAM Act, which would grant legal permanent residency to children who entered the country illegally with their parents, on the condition that they go to college or join the military. Some Democrats also worry that passing popular provisions on their own would sap the energy for comprehensive reform.
Meanwhile, a drawn-out court battle over the Arizona law, which might reach the Supreme Court, would intensify Republican opposition to reform and simply leave both sides to yell at each other and point fingers in the interim. For Democrats, the short-term diagnosis just isn't good, through little fault of their own.
President Obama has taken an uncharacteristically forceful stance on the crackdown, declaring that it "threaten[s] to undermine basic notions of fairness." The delicate politics of the issue are inextricably linked to the Hispanic community, by far the fastest growing demographic in the United States, which fiercely opposes the Arizona measure and views immigration reform as a top priority.
In the short run, Republicans stand to gain from drawing attention to the Arizona fight. But alienating Latino voters will ultimately spell political disaster for the GOP, which already fairs poorly among non-white voters, in a country where minorities are on their way to constituting a majority. For Democrats, fighting against the Arizona law paints a much more pleasant picture in the long-term than it does in the foreseeable future.