PHOENIX - On paper, Arizona's controversial new immigration law is not that different from the federal version.
The key difference is this: Arizona wants every illegal immigrant caught and deported. The federal government says treating all 11 million of the nation's illegal immigrants as criminals would overwhelm the system.
In its lawsuit challenging the Arizona law, the Justice Department says its policy is to focus on dangerous immigrants: gang members, drug traffickers, threats to national security.
Law-abiding immigrants without documentation would largely be left alone.
Homeland Security officials say the government cannot possibly find, arrest and deport everyone who is here illegally. And trying to do so would upset a balance crafted by Congress that takes into account humanitarian interests and foreign relations.
But proponents of the Arizona solution insist that's no reason not to try. And they say the state's toughest-in-the-nation law is a reasonable way to start.
"If it's really the case that they don't have enough resources to enforce the laws that Congress has passed, it would seem it's incumbent on them to go back to Congress and ask for more resources," said Steven Camarota, research director at the center for Immigration Studies, a group that favors stricter enforcement of immigration laws. "But since they don't do that, it sort of undermines the argument."
Arizona's new law is nearly identical to federal immigration law. At issue is how it is enforced. The federal government says the state law is unconstitutional because it usurps federal authority to protect U.S. borders and American citizens. Arizona counters that the federal government is not doing its job, forcing state officials to step in.
State lawmakers argue that the federal government already enlists local authorities to identify illegal immigrants who have been arrested in other crimes. The new law, they say, just extends that to police patrols.
The federal government says the law goes too far by making it a state crime to be in Arizona illegally and requiring police to question the immigration status of anyone they encounter who is believed to be undocumented.
The furor over the Arizona law is overblown, Camarota said yesterday. It does not envision mass deportations or roundups, just a slow but steady pressure on illegal immigrants to leave Arizona - either for their home countries or for another state.
The number of illegal immigrants in the country fell for the first time this decade in 2007, and dropped another 800,000 between 2008 and 2009, primarily because of the recession and increased enforcement efforts.
Local lawmakers differed on the Justice Department's lawsuit arguing federal immigration authority trumps state and local authority as it seeks to invalidate Arizona's new immigration law.
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Roslyn Heights) supports the lawsuit against Arizona.
"I don't think how it's possible for 50 states to have separate immigration policies, with different rules and different thresholds of enforcement. . . . It would be a real mess. It would be like every state having its own foreign policy."
Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) declined to take a position on the lawsuit. "The Arizona law is a response to the federal government not doing what it should do. . . . I understand the frustration but I think the effort is a flawed one. . . . The answer is for the federal government to step up to the plate and do what it needs to do, which is pass comprehensive immigration reform."
Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) supports the lawsuit.
"Yes because we can't have 50 separate immigration laws in the United States, we need one comprehensive solution."
Rep. Pete King (R-Seaford) opposes the lawsuit.
"Previous Supreme Court rulings have held that states are not pre-empted by the federal government if their statute is virtually identical to federal law, which is the case here. . . . This decision to sue Arizona demonstrates the arrogance and elitism of the Obama administration."
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola) declined to take a position on the lawsuit.
"Many states are having difficulty in dealing with illegal immigration and Arizona is responding to their local situation. . . . A lawsuit has been filed challenging the [Arizona] law and I will closely monitor these developments. This is clearly an important case, as the Arizona law is unprecedented."
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) backs the lawsuit.
"I think it's a federal issue. You know, the Arizona law is very destructive. It really makes the case why federal immigration reform is important."
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), sponsor of the Senate's comprehensive immigration legislation, declined to take a position on the lawsuit.
"The only way to stop illegal immigration is through comprehensive reform. In addition to border security measures, we need to stop employers from hiring illegal immigrants and to track visa overstays, which only the federal government can do."
Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy declined to take a position on the lawsuit.
"It is obvious that local and state governments have been forced to come up with legislation to deal with the illegal immigration problem because the federal government continues to maintain a position that it does not want to enforce the laws on the books."
Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano through his spokesman Michael Martino, said Mangano had no comment on the Justice Department lawsuit against Arizona's immigration law.
- Tom Brune, Sid Cassese and Reid Epstein