Arizona Immigration Policy Sets Off Polarizing Debate

City workers in San Francisco and St. Paul can no longer take business trips to Arizona. A professor who helped write Arizona's new immigration law says his phone hasn't stopped ringing. The White House is planning a strategy to combat the new law even as legislators in other states propose copycat bills.

With a stroke of her pen, Republican Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer not only signed into law the toughest immigration law in the country, she also reignited a polarizing debate. Protesters held dozens of marches in Los Angeles, New York and other cities Saturday to cap a chaotic week.

And with congressional elections six months away, the Arizona law has put the contentious vocabulary of "amnesty" for illegal immigrants vs. "securing our borders" back on center stage.

"The issue is always there, but it's usually right below the surface," said Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. "It doesn't take much to bring it back up."

The main point of contention in the law is the responsibility given to local police to verify immigration status if there is a "reasonable suspicion" that a person is in the country illegally. Brewer has said Arizona was forced to pass the law because the federal government has failed to act on a flood of illegal immigrants.

Some civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say the law will mean racial profiling, unfairly targeting Latinos who are in the country legally or were born here.

Congress jumped back into the debate Thursday, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid outlined a legislative proposal that would increase border security and give some of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants a chance to earn citizenship.

President Obama has ordered a review by the Justice Department into whether the Arizona law, scheduled to go into effect in late July, is constitutional.

The first legal challenges were filed in Arizona last week. Civil rights groups, including the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund, are mounting a broader attack. They say the law infringes on federal responsibility and violates the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause.

Supporters of the law are comfortable that it will hold up.

Kris Kobach, a University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law professor who helped draft the law, said the state is "three for three" defending immigration laws that were challenged as unconstitutional — laws that denied public benefits to illegal immigrants and targeted employers who hired them. "They've yet to defeat one of these Arizona statutes in court," he said.

Testing Strength of Boycotts

While lawyers prepare their suits, civil rights groups and some government agencies have launched economic boycotts.

Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said they will target businesses that donated to the campaigns of Arizona legislators who voted for the bill.

Government agencies, including San Francisco and St. Paul, and Denver Public Schools, have barred employees from official travel to Arizona. Tony Winnicker, spokesman for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, said the mayor does not want to "paint all of Arizona with one broad brush" but felt a boycott was the best way to voice disapproval.

"All I can say to the mayor of San Francisco is … 'You've got some crazy laws in California, and I wouldn't dream of not coming to San Francisco,' " said Jack Camper of the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said Democrats are fanning the flames of immigration to rally Hispanic voters in a year when polls show Republicans could whittle down Democratic majorities in Congress.

"It's potentially to their advantage if they're careful with it and aren't tarred by the idea of amnesty," he said.

Nowhere is the effect more apparent than in the campaigns of Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada.

In 2006, McCain co-sponsored a bill with Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts that would have made it possible for illegal immigrants to earn citizenship. This year, in the face of a strong primary challenge from former congressman J.D. Hayworth, McCain is talking tough on border security and praising his home state's law.

For Reid, the challenge is making sure that Hispanics — 15% of the Nevadans who voted in 2008 — show up this year. Polls show Reid struggling against possible Republican candidates, said Mark Jones, Rice University's political science department chairman.

Spawning Copycat Legislation

Kobach, the professor who helped write Arizona's law, said he's been contacted by so many legislators that he worries they'll act too quickly and write laws that don't stand up to challenge.

In other states:

• In Ohio, Butler County Sheriff Rick Jones and Republican state Rep. Courtney Combs are pushing a law like Arizona's.

• Utah's Legislature won't reconvene until January, but Republican state Rep. Stephen Sandstrom said he's drafting a bill like Arizona's. "I'm certainly happy to see the state of Arizona take the full size-13 boot to the federal government," Republican House Speaker Dave Clark said.

• A draft of a bill is circulating among Delaware legislators, said John Jaremchuk, a Republican councilman in Elsmere.

• Republican Missouri state Rep. Mark Parkinson said the Arizona law galvanized lawmakers to consider a similar bill in 2011.

• Texas state Rep. Debbie Riddle, a Republican, said she will file a bill similar to Arizona's. "If our federal government did their job," she told the Associated Press, "then Arizona wouldn't have to take this action, and neither would Texas."

Contributing: Joan Biskupic, Kevin Johnson and Kathy Kiely in Washington; Sheila McLaughlin, The Cincinnati Enquirer; David DeMille, The (St. George, Utah) Spectrum; Mike Chalmers, The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal; Didi Tang, Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader