The Obama administration sued Tuesday to stop Arizona's new immigration law in a move that escalates President Obama's involvement in the thorny issue and stacks him against a majority of Americans who support the law.
The challenge, which had been expected for weeks, drew harsh rebukes from Republicans and even some Democrats who said it is "distracting" from the more serious issues of border security and could upset Mr. Obama's call for Congress to act on a broad immigration bill that would legalize illegal immigrants and rewrite the rules for legal immigration.
In the challenge, Justice Department attorneys said Arizona's law violates the Constitution by trying to supersede federal law and by impairing illegal immigrants' right to travel and conduct interstate commerce. They argued that only the federal government can write immigration rules.
"Diverting federal resources away from dangerous aliens such as terrorism suspects and aliens with criminal records will impact the entire country's safety," Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in announcing the lawsuit. "Setting immigration policy and enforcing immigration laws is a national responsibility. Seeking to address the issue through a patchwork of state laws will only create more problems than it solves."
Immigrant rights advocates praised the move as the only way to head off civil rights abuses, but opponents said Mr. Obama should forgo the lawsuit and instead focus on securing the border.
"Washington failed us on this issue again today, and Arizonans have had enough," said Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, Arizona Democrat, who said the lawsuit will distract from real immigration challenges. "The White House and Congress need to start developing a better approach to border security and immigration reform, working with us instead of against us."
The government is asking a court to block the law from taking effect July 29.
The law requires police to check the legal status of anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally whom they encounter while enforcing other laws already on the books. It says race may not be used as a factor for determining who should be questioned, but opponents, including Mr. Obama, say they fear it will lead to racial profiling nonetheless.
In a broad speech last week calling for immigration reforms, Mr. Obama called Arizona's new rules "unenforceable."
Still, with five other lawsuits pending against the law from civil rights and immigrant advocacy groups, the administration could have simply filed briefs arguing for its position in one of those cases. Instead, the Justice Department brought the lawsuit itself, elevating the controversy even further.
"If they're not going to add anything new, then why are they bringing the lawsuit?" said Kris W. Kobach, a law professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City who helped craft the Arizona law and who said the Justice Department lawsuit doesn't raise any new questions of law. "The only explanation that makes any sense is they're doing this for political reasons."
Mr. Kobach also said the lawsuit was curious in that it made no mention of Mr. Obama's fears about an increase in racial profiling or other violations of civil rights.
"Obviously the Justice Department attorneys have read the Arizona law now and have come to the conclusion they can't make that argument without blushing," Mr. Kobach said.
Mr. Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano faced ridicule earlier this year after they acknowledged they had not read the text of the law, even though they had publicly criticized it.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said that if the Obama administration was consistent in its argument over patchwork immigration laws it would sue to stop so-called sanctuary cities, which generally protect the identities of illegal immigrants.
"The truth is the Arizona law is both reasonable and constitutional," she said. "It mirrors substantially what has been federal law in the United States for many decades. Arizona's law is designed to complement, not supplant, enforcement of federal immigration laws."
The move even has irked some who otherwise would have been allies with Mr. Obama in his push for a broad immigration bill.
Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks, a coalition of businesses pushing for immigration reforms, said the lawsuit will damage chances of completing a bill.
"An administration lawsuit will only fan the flames of that debate," she said. "It will baffle and anger the 60 percent of Americans who support [Arizona's law]. It will inject immigration into midterm campaigns from coast to coast. Perhaps worst of all, it will alienate key lawmakers, from Arizona and elsewhere, without whose help the administration can have little hope of advancing comprehensive immigration reform."
But the move does buy the president some breathing space from immigrant rights advocates, who have been bluntly critical of Mr. Obama for not moving fast enough to win an immigration bill.
"The only responsible path for the president, now that the Department of Justice has filed this suit, is to redouble his efforts to ensure that there is a federal solution to our nation's broken immigration system," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.
Polls show a majority of Americans support Arizona's actions, but a vocal minority, lead by increasingly powerful Hispanic rights activists, has protested every step of the way.
They led a vigil outside the White House on Tuesday, and the Associated Press reported that some activists are making plans to protest Mrs. Brewer when she attends the National Governors Association meeting in Boston this weekend.
Justice Department attorneys cited three grounds for blocking the law: They argued it is pre-empted by federal law, violates the supremacy clause that makes national laws take precedence over state laws, and that it restricts commerce between states in violation of the Constitution.
Mrs. Brewer, a Republican who is running for election this year, has hired outside attorneys to defend the law rather than rely on Terry Goddard, Arizona's attorney general, who had opposed the law and who is likely to be the Democratic challenger to Mrs. Brewer in November.
Judge Susan Bolton, a Clinton administration nominee, has ordered all five of the other lawsuits to be transferred to her courtroom, and attorneys on both sides said they expect her to ask that the Justice Department's lawsuit be transferred to her court as well.
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