Lawsuit on immigrants fans flames in Arizona

With the midterm elections set for November, Democrats fear it is a risky time to bring the explosive issue of immigration to the forefront.

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WASHINGTON // The Obama administration's decision to sue the state of Arizona over its controversial immigration law could fan the flames of the contentious US immigration debate and pose new political hurdles for Democrats seeking re-election at November's midterm poll.

The Arizona law, which will take effect on July 29, would make it a state crime to be in the United States illegally, and require police officers to question people about their immigration status if there is "reasonable suspicion" they might be illegal immigrants. State officials - led by Arizona's Republican governor, Jan Brewer, who signed the law in April - have said it is necessary in the absence of any concerted federal effort to secure the country's southern border. There are nearly 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, about 460,000 of whom live in Arizona, according to the latest data available from the Department of Homeland Security.

Civil liberties groups worry that the law will lead to police harassment and racial profiling against Hispanics. President Barack Obama has called the law "misguided" and, this month, the Justice Department filed a rare lawsuit challenging Arizona on the grounds that immigration is the jurisdiction of the federal government, not state governments. Now some Democrats are concerned that the lawsuit could hurt their party's chances in the midterm elections. Polls show a majority of the public support the Arizona law and a survey of likely voters by the polling firm Rasmussen Reports showed that respondents opposed the Justice Department's lawsuit by a 2-to-1 margin.

Just over half of the 1,000 respondents to the Rasmussen survey said the immigration issue is "very important" in the upcoming elections. In a private meeting with White House officials last weekend, Democratic governors seeking re-election voiced concern about the lawsuit and its effect on the November vote, The New York Times reported. Governor Phil Bredesen of Tennessee told the Times that candidates would prefer to avoid the immigration debate in an election year polarised by issues such as healthcare reform and the poor economy.

"Universally the governors are saying, 'We've got to talk about jobs'," Mr Bredesen said. "And all of a sudden we have immigration going on." Another Democratic governor, Bill Ritter of Colorado, who faces a tough re-election battle, said he would have preferred "a different tack and a different time" to raise the immigration debate. Among the concerns of Democrats are that the immigration issue could further energise conservative voters, who are already expected to turn out in large numbers in November.

Immigration has long been a contentious issue in US politics. During the presidency of George W Bush, whose immigration reform efforts were twice rejected by Congress, the immigration debate dominated the political discourse and caused large-scale protests in major US cities. The debate becomes even more charged at a time of high unemployment, when illegal workers are seen to be competing with citizens and legal residents for jobs. Unsurprisingly, few Democrats have come out in support of the administration's lawsuit.

Some have sought to avoid the topic altogether, according to Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which calls for reducing immigration to the United States. "You've seen a lot of Democrats kind of duck the issue, keep their heads low," he said. Others believe the Justice Department's legal challenge could work in the Democrats' favour by galvanising Hispanic voters, who have been united in opposition to the Arizona law. Hispanic voters overwhelmingly supported Mr Obama in 2008 in part because of his campaign promise to take up immigration reform.

But many Hispanics have since been disenchanted by the administration's focus on other issues such as health care, energy and financial reform. Tad Devine, a long-time Democratic consultant, said the lawsuit against Arizona could help Democrats reconnect with their core support among Hispanics. "I think it will help Democrats in some places where Latino turnout is the key to winning," he said. However, he warned that the political fallout of suing Arizona could "cut both ways".

Mr Obama continues to offer general assurances that he will pursue his immigration reform agenda. In a speech this month, he said that he was "ready to move forward" with reform. Few observers believe Congress will take up the matter this year. Nevertheless, the Arizona law has brought the issue to the forefront of public debate and the administration has shown no signs of backing down. On Sunday, Eric Holder, the attorney general, warned of a second lawsuit against Arizona if the Justice Department determines that Arizona police are engaging in racial profiling against Hispanics.

Concerns about racial profiling are not addressed in the lawsuit already filed by the administration. "If that was the case, we would have the tools and we would bring suit on that basis," Mr Holder said in an interview that aired on CBS.