Blog Archive

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Immigration suit worries governors

By Abby Goodnough
The New York Times
July 12, 2010

In a private meeting with White House officials over the weekend, Democratic governors voiced deep anxiety about the Obama administration’s suit against Arizona’s new immigration law, worrying that it could cost a vulnerable Democratic Party in the fall elections.

While the weak economy dominated the official agenda at the summer meeting in Boston of the National Governors Association, concern over immigration policy pervaded the closed-door session between Democratic governors and White House officials and simmered throughout the three-day event.

At the Democrats’ meeting Saturday, some governors bemoaned the timing of the Justice Department lawsuit, according to two governors who spoke anonymously because the discussion was private.

“Universally the governors are saying, ‘We’ve got to talk about jobs,’ ’’ Governor Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, a Democrat, said in an interview. “And all of a sudden we have immigration going on.’’

He added, “It is such a toxic subject, such an important time for Democrats.’’

The administration seemed to be taking a carrot-and-stick approach yesterday. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, in town to give the governors a classified national security briefing, met one-on-one with Jan Brewer, the Republican who succeeded her as governor of Arizona and ardently supports the immigration law.

Brewer said they did not discuss the lawsuit. Instead, in a conversation she described as cordial, they discussed Arizona’s request for more National Guard troops along the border with Mexico, as well as other resources.

But about the same time that the two were meeting, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said on a taped Sunday talk show that the Justice Department could bring yet another lawsuit against Arizona if there is evidence that the immigration law leads to racial profiling.

The Democrats’ meeting provided a window on tensions between the White House and states over the suit, which the Justice Department filed last week in federal court in Phoenix. Nineteen Democratic governors are either leaving office or seeking reelection this year, and Republicans see those seats as crucial to swaying the 2012 presidential race.

The Arizona law — which Brewer signed in April and which, barring an injunction, takes effect July 29 — makes it a crime to be an illegal immigrant there. It also requires police officers to determine the immigration status of people they stop for other offenses if there is a “reasonable suspicion’’ that they might be illegal immigrants.

The lawsuit contends that controlling immigration is a federal responsibility, but polls suggest that a majority of Americans support the Arizona law, or at least the concept of a state having a strong role in immigration enforcement.

Republican governors at the Boston meeting were also critical of the lawsuit, saying it infringed on states’ rights, and rallied around Brewer, whose presence spurred a raucous protest outside the downtown hotel where the governors gathered.

“I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that almost every state in America next January is going to see a bill similar to Arizona’s,’’ said Governor Dave Heineman of Nebraska, a Republican seeking reelection.

Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi, a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2012, said, “It’s a sad day in America when the federal government sues a state for passing a law, the reason for which is because the federal government is not doing its job.’’

But the unease of Democratic governors, seven of whom are seeking reelection this year, was more striking.

“I might have chosen both a different tack and a different time,’’ said Governor Bill Ritter Jr. of Colorado, a Democrat who was facing a tough reelection fight and pulled out of the race this year. “This is an issue that divides us politically, and I’m hopeful that their strategy doesn’t do that in a way that makes it more difficult for candidates to get elected, particularly in the West.’’

The White House would not directly respond to reports of complaints from some Democratic governors.

But David Axelrod, the president’s senior adviser, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union’’ that the president remained committed to passing an immigration overhaul, and that addressing the issue did not mean he was ignoring the economy.

“That doesn’t mean we can’t have a good, healthy debate about the economy and other issues,’’ Axelrod said.

President Obama addressed the economy last week during stops in Kansas City, Mo., and Las Vegas, and has been calling on Congress to offer additional tax relief to small businesses.

Still, the issue of immigration commanded as much attention as anything here this weekend.

Brewer, who was trailed by television cameras all weekend, called the lawsuit “outrageous’’ and said the state was receiving donations from around the country to help fight it.

“I think Arizona will win,’’ she said, “and we will take a position for all of America.’’

Immigration was not the only topic at the Saturday meeting between Democratic governors and two White House officials — Patrick Gaspard, Obama’s political director, and Cecilia Munoz, director of intergovernmental affairs.

But several governors, including Christine Gregoire of Washington, said it was a particularly heated issue.

Gregoire, who does not face an election this year, said the White House was doing a poor job of showing the American public that it was working on the problem of illegal immigration.

“They described for me a list of things that they are doing to try and help on that border,’’ Gregoire said of the White House officials at the closed-door meeting. “And I said, ‘The public doesn’t know that.’ ’’

Some Democrats also joined Republicans in calling for Congress to pass an immigration policy overhaul this year.