Supporters of Arizona’s immigration law turn focus to ‘sanctuary cities’

Holly Bailey

Opponents of the Justice Department's lawsuit challenging the enforcement of Arizona's controversial immigration law have hit upon a strategy to use the reasoning behind the action to highlight what they contend is a gaping inconsistency in Justice Department's policy priorities. Why should federal attorneys be targeting the Arizona law as an alleged obstacle to coherent and centralized enforcement of federal immigration statutes, they argue, while Justice officials also have done nothing to challenge the legal status of  so-called sanctuary cities, which effectively block enforcement of the same federal law?

The Justice Department has asked a federal judge in Phoenix to stop Arizona’s law from going into effect this Thursday, arguing that the measure interferes with federal immigration policy.  But critics, including California GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, are challenging the logic of Justice's move, arguing that if  U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder really cared about enforcing federal immigration law, he should be targeting sanctuary cities instead of Arizona.

More than 30 cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Miami, Denver, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Dallas, have local ordinances on the books that prevent police from asking about a person’s immigration status. The Arizona law, scheduled to go into effect July 29, would allow officers to question a person’s immigration status and report them to federal authorities if that person is believed to be in the country illegally. The crackdown could prompt illegal immigrants to seek refuge out of Arizona and into those sanctuary cities.

A Justice Department official told the Washington Times there is nothing hypocritical about the government going after Arizona while ignoring sanctuary cities and suggested they won’t step up enforcement. Administration officials say they want to seek and deport criminal immigrants. Indeed, a recent Washington Post report found that deportation of illegal immigrants has spiked significantly under the Obama administration.  But federal officials insist they don’t have the capability or resources to remove the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who haven’t had run-ins with the police.

"There is a big difference between a state or locality saying they are not going to use their resources to enforce a federal law, as so-called sanctuary cities have done, and a state passing its own immigration policy that actively interferes with federal law," Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler told the Times’ Stephen Dinan and Kara Rowland. “That’s what Arizona did in this case.”

But even if Arizona's law goes into effect, the debate over sanctuary cities--which sprouted up mainly in the 1980s to give refuge to exiles from El Salvador's deadly civil war--is hardly over. Hunter is sponsoring legislation in Congress that would force the Justice Department to crack down on cities that don't enforce immigration laws--though it's not likely to come to a vote before next year.