Will Obama Sue States Copying Arizona's Immigration Law?

Alabama and other states have passed harsh new measures. But so far, the White House is staying on the sidelines.

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

It's considered the most drastic anti-immigration legislation ever passed in America—going even further than the Arizona law that spawned a national outcry last year.

The new law passed by Alabama's Republican-controlled legislature this month requires all public schools to verify their students' residency status through birth certificates or sworn affidavits. The measure also bars undocumented immigrants from attending state colleges, and makes "transporting, harboring, or renting property" to them illegal.

It's not just Alabama following Arizona's lead: Georgia, Utah, Indiana, and South Carolina have also passed restrictive immigration laws. But Alabama has taken the crackdown a step further by going after the children of immigrants and blocking their access to public education—a blatant violation of the 14th Amendment, according to the law's opponents. "They're asking everyone to act like immigration agents," says Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant rights group.

Opponents of the new laws are pressing the White House to act, as it did in July 2010 when the Department of Justice filed suit against Arizona. But in contrast to that forceful response, the administration has so far stayed on the sidelines in the latest wave of state-level battles.

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The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups have vowed to sue to block Alabama's law; the ACLU was among those who had successfully held up Utah's measure in court, preventing it from taking effect. But immigration-rights activists say they're still waiting—and hoping—that the administration will intervene. After the DOJ sued Arizona, a federal judge prevented the most controversial provisions of that state's law from taking effect.

The White House has been quiet on the issue recently, aside from a few passing criticisms when a reporter asked Obama about Georgia's law. But the DOJ insists that the administration "is very concerned about these state measures and their possible impact…A patchwork of state laws will only create more problems than it solves," says spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler. "To the extent we find state laws that interfere with the federal government’s enforcement of immigration law, we are prepared to bring suit." She adds the agency is reviewing the new state immigration laws in line "with the process followed and the legal principles established in US v. Arizona" in determining "whether and when" to challenge them in court.

But pro-immigration advocates are still pushing for Obama to do more—and faster. "We think it's deafening silence," says Karen Tumlin, managing attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, an advocacy group that's also planning to sue Alabama over its law. "It's a mistake for the administration to hesitate in other states when they have sued in Arizona," adds Cecilia Wang, managing attorney for the ACLU's Immigrant Rights Project.

Even before Alabama's law passed, the White House was aware that schoolchildren were becoming targets in the immigration battle. In May, the administration sent a memo to state and local officials raising concerns about kids being denied access to public schools because of their families' immigration status. "Recently, we have become aware of student enrollment practices that may chill or discourage the participation, or lead to the exclusion, of students based on their or their parents’ or guardians’ actual or perceived citizenship or immigration status," it read. "These practices contravene Federal law."

Close allies of the White House say the Obama administration is taking a "wait and see" approach to the Alabama law, watching to see how the courts react to legal challenges already underway. They point out that the Arizona law had passed in April 2010, but the administration waited until July to follow suit. "They may be marshalling their resources if it looks like something's going forward" and these laws will be implemented, says Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress.

Nevertheless, things could get more complicated if the courts give Alabama and other states a green light to put their crackdowns into effect. Such a move would ramp up pressure on Obama to intercede just as the 2012 campaign heats up. While opposing these laws might help Obama shore up support among Latino voters and other members of his liberal base, it risks igniting a polarizing debate—another Arizona—that might not necessarily help Obama among white, independent voters—who will be key to his re-election.

"I'm sure that no sitting president is enamored of the perception he's at war with various states—it's not great political optics," says Fitz. But if the courts give Alabama free rein to persecute schoolchildren, he concludes, "I don’t think these guys are going to run away."

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