PHOENIX – Gov. Jan Brewer ignored criticism from President Barack Obama on Friday and signed into law a bill supporters said would take handcuffs off police in dealing with illegal immigration in Arizona, the nation's gateway for human and drug smuggling.
With hundreds of protesters outside the state Capitol shouting that the bill would lead to civil rights abuses, Brewer said critics were "overreacting" and that she wouldn't tolerate racial profiling.
"We in Arizona have been more than patient waiting for Washington to act," Brewer said after signing the law. "But decades of inaction and misguided policy have created a dangerous and unacceptable situation."
Earlier Friday, Obama called the Arizona bill "misguided" and instructed the Justice Department to examine it to see if it's legal. He also said the federal government must enact immigration reform at the national level — or leave the door open to "irresponsibility by others."
"That includes, for example, the recent efforts in Arizona, which threaten to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and their communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe," Obama said.
The legislation, sent to the Republican governor by the GOP-led Legislature, makes it a crime under state law to be in the country illegally. It also requires local police officers to question people about their immigration status if there is reason to suspect they are illegal immigrants, allows lawsuits against government agencies that hinder enforcement of immigration laws, and make it illegal to hire illegal immigrants for day labor or knowingly transport them.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund said it plans a legal challenge to the law, arguing it "launches Arizona into a spiral of pervasive fear, community distrust, increased crime and costly litigation, with nationwide repercussions."
Brewer ordered the state's law enforcement licensing agency to develop a training course on how to implement the law while respecting civil rights.
The bill will take effect in late July or early August.
At the Capitol, some 2,000 protesters booed county Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox when she announced that "the governor did not listen to our prayers."
"It's going to change our lives," said Emilio Almodovar, a 13-year-old American citizen from Phoenix. "We can't walk to school any more. We can't be in the streets anymore without the pigs thinking we're illegal immigrants."
Brewer signed the bill in a state auditorium about a mile from the Capitol complex where demonstrators have protested the legislation since the measure was approved by lawmakers on Monday. Their numbers grew steadily throughout the week, with buses bringing protesters from as far away as Los Angeles.
Brewer, who faces a tough election battle and growing anger in the state over illegal immigrants, said the law "protects every Arizona citizen."
Anti-immigrant anger has swelled in the past month, after rancher Rob Krentz was found dead on his land north of Douglas, near the Mexico border. Authorities believe he was fatally shot by an illegal immigrant possibly connected to a drug smuggling cartel.
Arizona has an estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants, and its harsh, remote desert serves as the corridor for the majority of illegal immigrants and drugs moving north into the U.S. from Mexico.
U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat, said he closed his Arizona offices at noon Friday after his staff in Yuma and Tucson were flooded with calls this week, some from people threatening violent acts and shouting racial slurs. He called on businesses and groups looking for convention and meeting locations to boycott Arizona.
The bill's Republican sponsor, state Rep. Russell Pearce of Mesa, said Obama and other critics of the bill were "against law enforcement, our citizens and the rule of law."
Pearce said the legislation would remove "political handcuffs" from police and help drive illegal immigrants from the state.
"Illegal is illegal," said Pearce, a driving force on the issue in Arizona. "We'll have less crime. We'll have lower taxes. We'll have safer neighborhoods. We'll have shorter lines in the emergency rooms. We'll have smaller classrooms."
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