Obama’s immigration law gamble

How badly will the lawsuit against Arizona hurt the Democrats?

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Facing November mid-term elections in which they could lose control of the House, if not the Senate, Democrats had a plan for this summer: take to the campaign trail talking about jobs. Republicans had planned to keep fanning the flames against President Barack Obama’s health-care reform and mounting government debt. But the administration scrambled those plans last week by launching a lawsuit against the state of Arizona.

At issue: its tough new immigration law which, as of July 29 unless a court intervenes, will make it a crime to fail to carry immigration documents in Arizona. (Until now, being in the country illegally was a federal civil offence.) Most controversially, the law requires police to check the immigration status of people they stop for other offences if they “reasonably suspect” them of being in the country illegally.

Civil rights groups were outraged and, warning that the law would lead to racial profiling and harassment of Latinos, pressed the Obama administration to take action. (Separate civil lawsuits have been filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups.) The administration’s lawsuit doesn’t make a civil rights argument. Instead, it claims that Arizona is violating the U.S. constitution by intruding into a clearly federal area of jurisdiction. “The Constitution and federal law do not permit the development of a patchwork of state and local immigration policies throughout the country,” the government’s legal brief states. But the legal details are almost beside the point this summer and fall. Tempers run high on the immigration issue, hotter still amidst mass unemployment. There are plenty of lawmakers in other states pushing similar laws—potentially making immigration the hottest issue come November.

Republicans accuse Obama of taking on a legitimate and popular law for political gain. If it is an election ploy, it’s also a gamble: a Gallup poll on July 7 suggested that 50 per cent of Americans oppose the lawsuit, while only 33 per cent support it. And most respondents told pollsters that they feel “strongly” about their views. Republicans are overwhelmingly opposed—80 per cent—while Democrats are only mildly in favour at 56 per cent.

In Arizona, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer will likely ride the issue to re-election. But according to Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, who closely follows the congressional electoral map, three incumbent Democratic House members may face defeat in Arizona, while the issue could cost other Democrats their seats in Texas, Florida and North Carolina. Already, several Democratic governors have told the Obama administration that the lawsuit is politically “toxic.”

If any Democratic candidate stands to benefit from the lawsuit, though, it’s Nevada’s Harry Reid, the majority leader in the Senate, Sabato told Maclean’s. Nevada’s population is a quarter Hispanic, with Latinos comprising about 15 per cent of voters on election day. And Nevada Hispanics are more heavily Democratic than usual: they voted for Obama by 76 per cent in 2008.

In a broader sense, Obama may be hoping that the lawsuit offers the Democrats the possibility of reassembling the voter coalition that swept him into office: young voters, Hispanics and African-Americans. “The President’s advisers clearly believe that motivating the Democratic base is their best ticket this November. They’ve made it clear that they need to recreate the electorate that turned out in 2008,” says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, who notes that young and minority voters are the strongest opponents of the law. But, adds Schnur, also the chairman of the California fair-political-practices commission, “it also sounds like they are prepared to lose several of the more centrist Democratic members.”

Obama’s eyes may also be on the longer term—his own re-election in 2012. “He has to think of the overall Democratic coalition,” says Sabato. Two-thirds of Hispanics and Latinos voted for Obama for president, and “there is great anger in the Latino community about the Arizona law, clearly. Obama obviously considered that before the suit was filed,” Sabato adds. “This may help him retain Hispanic support in 2012.” But the next presidential election is a long way away—and there is an angry, hot summer ahead.

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