How The Justice Department’s Immigration Lawsuit Burned Arizona Democrats

July 8, 2010 4:52 am

In case you’re worried about politics influencing President Obama’s Justice Deparment, the federal lawsuit against Arizona’s controversial immigration law should set your mind at rest. In the days since the lawsuit was announced, it’s become clear that this makes things a whole lot tougher for Arizona Democrats running for office this year. If the White House political operation was hoping to help its political allies out west, this most definitely would not be the way to do it.

“[The lawsuit] puts Democrats between a rock and hard spot,” Earl de Berge of the Rocky Mountain Poll, which does extensive research on Arizona politics, told me. De Berge said that the lawsuit gives Republicans more cause to call them “weak on immigration,” a brush they’ve been painted with for months during the debate over Arizona’s infamous 1070 immigration law.

“One of the things that’s interesting about this move from the Justice Department is that some of the steam was removed from the debate when [1070] was passed,” de Berge said. He said that the lawsuit has reignited the immigration issue among conservatives after Democrats had begun to put it behind them in the wake of the law’s passage. “From that standpoint, [the lawsuit] really gives a longer life for this issue to the Republicans,” which is an advantage to them, de Berge said.The media seems to agree. From Politico to NPR, reports have emerged suggesting that Democrats who back the lawsuit will be on the wrong side of their electorate in Arizona.

Candidates appear to have gotten the message. A pair of embattled Democratic Representatives — Ann Kirkpatrick and Harry Mitchell — expressed their displeasure with the suit right after it was filed, seeking to distance themselves from the suit before it even got rolling. Even Arizona’s chief law enforcement officer, Attorney General Terry Goddard, came out against the suit as he ramps up his gubernatorial campaign.

“It is disappointing to see the federal government choosing to intervene in a state statute instead of working with Arizona to create sustainable solutions to the illegal immigration issue that our state and country so desperately need,” Goddard said in a statement.

Arizona Democratic Party Executive Director Luis Heredia acknowledged that running a political campaign in Arizona on the side of the party (at least theoretically) behind the lawsuit was not exactly ideal.

“It’s a distraction,” he told me. “It’s distracting the electorate from the issue of comprehensive immigration reform.”

That’s the main problem with the lawsuit, according to Heredia. By making the issue into a battle over state’s rights (i.e. whether or not Arizona can enforce immigration laws on its own), it makes it tough for Democrats to get a word in edgewise about comprehensive reform, an issue where Democrats usually have the advantage.

“It continues to kind of hurt as they stall [on comprehensive reform],” Herida said. “The lawsuit and SB 1070 are not solving the problem.”

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