President barack Obama took a powerful pre-emptive swipe yesterday at a new immigration law in Arizona, which gives police the power for the first time anywhere in America to challenge and potentially arrest anyone they feel might have entered the country illegally. It was signed into law last night by the state Governor.
Speaking at a White House ceremony to celebrate the granting of citizenship to immigrants serving in the US military, Mr Obama chided Arizona for its "misguided" new bill, which has triggered a chorus of complaints from human rights groups across the country. He said he had asked federal officials to assess the legality of the law.
The Governor, Jan Brewer, who faces a tough election fight in November, last night decided to sign the bill, which, according to polls, has 70 per cent support from Arizona residents. It makes it a state offence for anyone to be in Arizona without proper papers. "Where practicable" officers would be required to determine the status of a person if there is any reason to suspect they are on US soil illegally.
After signing the law, Mrs Brewer said critics of the law were "overreacting".
"We in Arizona have been more than patient waiting for Washington to act, but decades of inaction and misguided policy have created a dangerous and unacceptable situation," she added.
Mr Obama said developments in Arizona, which shares a border with Mexico and has an estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants – the seventh highest in the US – illustrate the urgency of national immigration reform. "Our failure to act responsibly at the federal level will only open the door to irresponsibility by others," he said, including "the recent efforts in Arizona which threaten to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and their communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe".
Even John McCain, the former Republican presidential candidate who got into difficulties with conservatives a few years ago for supporting a bipartisan effort at immigration reform on Capitol Hill, has shifted ground and come out in support of the law. His move reflects the growing power of conservatives in his party and the challenge from the right that he faces in seeking re-election himself in this year's mid-terms.
More than 1,000 protesters, including students and Hispanic residents, marched at the Arizona state capitol building on Thursday demanding that Governor Brewer veto the new law. Civil rights groups argue that it would wreck community and police relations with the very large Hispanic population, deterring them, for example, from coming forward to report crimes. Above all, it would lead to overt racial profiling in the state.
Standing firm, however, was the law's main author, the Republican state Senator Russell Pearce. He said it would free police from "political handcuffs" and allow them to push illegal immigrants from the state. "Illegal is illegal," he said this week. "We'll have less crime. We'll have lower taxes. We'll have safer neighbourhoods. We'll have shorter lines in the emergency rooms. We'll have smaller classrooms."
Just how far Mr McCain is sliding to hold on to his Senate seat is evident in his remarks on the bill. "Drivers of cars with illegals in them ... are intentionally causing accidents on the freeways," he contended, rather astonishingly, in one interview. He went on: "Arizona is doing what it feels it needs to do in light of the fact that the federal government is not fulfilling its fundamental responsibility – to secure our borders."
Other controversial provisions in the new law make it illegal for anyone in Arizona to hire a person without proper immigration status or knowingly transport them. This either acknowledges or ignores the fact that large swathes of the economy, particularly in the South-west, depend on a cheap and undocumented workforce. The law would also allow anyone to sue any part of state government that does not implement the legislation.
Among those who joined to lobby Governor Brewer to veto the new law were Catholic bishops, New Mexico's Governor Bill Richardson and Arizona's Attorney General Terry Goddard. The Mexican government has also made clear its concerns about the law and the consequences of racial profiling.
The remarks by Mr Obama were a signal that comprehensive immigration reform remains a priority for his White House even though a resumption of debate on Capitol Hill on the topic carries heavy political risks for him. But Mr Obama hopes to win bipartisan backing for reform that seeks to strengthen US borders but also to address the status of the many millions who are already in this country without proper documentation.
Mr Obama left the White House soon after the naturalisation ceremony for the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina for a two-day golfing break with his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters.