WASHINGTON — Republicans denounced the Obama administration's challenge of Arizona's new immigration law Tuesday, a fresh sign they may try to paint Democrats this fall as soft on illegal border crossings.
While Democrats stayed largely quiet, a host of Republicans said the federal government has no business challenging Arizona's new law. Slated to be implemented July 29, it would require state and local police to question and possibly arrest illegal immigrants during the enforcement of other laws such as traffic stops.
"If the president wants to make real progress on this issue, he can do so by taking amnesty off the table and focus his efforts on border and interior security," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
But some Democratic strategists say the GOP is playing a dangerous game. Past GOP bids to crack down on illegal immigration have driven Latino voters into Democrats' arms, as was seen most dramatically in California in the 1990s. And Americans who are most passionate about illegal immigration tend to be reliable Republican voters anyway, and not up for grabs, these strategists say.
"There's no evidence that Republicans have been able to turn this issue into a winning issue in a general election," said Simon Rosenberg, who follows immigration matters as head of the liberal-leaning group NDN. If top Republicans keep pounding the issue, he said, it could increase Democratic turnout in Texas, Arizona, Nevada, California and possibly other states.
The politics of immigration has a complex past and unclear future.
Republican President George W. Bush failed to persuade a GOP-controlled Congress to enact comprehensive changes that would have included pathways to legal status for millions of illegal immigrants. Democrats prospered in the next two elections, in 2006 and 2008, when immigration was a back-burner issue. In 2008, Republicans chose as their presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona, once a champion of Bush's immigration efforts.
But McCain, like many other Republicans and some Democrats, has shifted to the right on the issue. Facing a tough GOP primary, McCain has run a campaign ad saying "complete the danged fence." Three years ago, he had dismissed the effectiveness of building a fence on the U.S.-Mexico border.
He joined numerous well-known GOP officials in criticizing President Barack Obama's decision Tuesday.
They included Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio. Boehner said the federal government should not sue Arizona but should help that state and others "stop the crime and lawlessness along the border." [See where Boehner's campaign cash comes from.]
Top Democratic elected officials had little to say, leaving the defense of Obama's move to liberal allies such as the ACLU. One exception was Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who heads his party's Senate campaign committee. He said the Arizona law "sets a dangerous precedent that puts even citizens and lawful residents at risk of racial profiling."
Matt Bennett, vice president of the Democratic-leaning group Third Way, said Republicans might get some short-term gain from criticizing Obama's decision, "but in the end, they are taking a simplistic approach to a complex issue."
Polls reflect the issue's complexity, Bennett said. They show strong support for controlling immigration, including support for Arizona's new law. But they also find significant support for an "earned path to citizenship" for illegal immigrants already here.
Americans who are most likely to make immigration a top voting priority, Bennett said, tend to live or work in places "profoundly affected by immigration."