A week after suing Arizona and arguing that the state's immigration law creates a patchwork of rules, the Obama administration said it will not go after so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate with the federal government on immigration enforcement, on the grounds that they are not as bad as a state that "actively interferes."
"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," Tracy Schmaler, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., told The Washington Times. "That's what Arizona did in this case."
But the author of the 1996 federal law that requires states and localities to cooperate with federal authorities on immigration laws thinks the administration is misreading the statute and that sanctuary cities are in violation of federal law. Drawing a distinction between those localities and Arizona, he said, is "flimsy justification" for suing the state.
"For the Justice Department to suggest that they won't take action against those who passively violate the law who fail to comply with the law is absurd," said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee and chief author of the 1996 immigration law. "Will they ignore individuals who fail to pay taxes? Will they ignore banking laws that require disclosure of transactions over $10,000? Of course not."
Officials in Arizona say they've been unfairly singled out by President Obama and Mr. Holder, who last week sued to overturn Arizona's new law, arguing that it could lead to a patchwork of state immigration rules.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and other critics said that sanctuary cities -- localities that refuse to check on someone's legal status or won't alert immigration authorities when they encounter illegal immigrants -- are just as guilty of creating a patchwork of laws, and violate the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.
Mr. Smith said the administration doesn't appear to understand his law, which requires localities to share information on illegal immigrants with federal authorities.
"The White House is just plain wrong on the premise since the Arizona law mirrors federal law -- it does not 'interfere' with it," he said.
The Arizona law, which goes into effect July 29 unless a court blocks it, requires authorities to inquire about the legal status of any detained person about whom they have reasonable suspicion might be in the country illegally. The law as amended specifically prohibits using race or ethnicity as a reason for suspicion.
Messages left with Mrs. Brewer's office Wednesday were not returned. But in a statement last week, she said Arizona was being targeted.
"President Obama's administration has chosen to sue Arizona for helping to enforce federal immigration law and not sue local governments that have adopted a patchwork of 'sanctuary' policies that directly violate federal law. These patchwork local 'sanctuary' policies instruct the police not to cooperate with federal immigration officials," she said.
Mr. Obama took an active role in targeting Arizona, including ordering the Justice Department to get involved. But on sanctuary cities, the White House has deflected questions, first telling a reporter it would get an answer about the president's thinking but eventually shifting questions over to the Justice Department.
In his original directions to Justice to review the Arizona law, Mr. Obama asked for lawyers to look into potential conflicts with federal immigration law and potential civil rights violations, such as racial profiling.
When it was filed July 6, though, the Justice Department lawsuit attacked the law only as an infringement on federal prerogatives. It did not make any accusations that the law violates civil rights, though Mr. Holder threatened a second lawsuit on that issue during on Sunday's political talk shows.
Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez defended the Arizona lawsuit on Monday, telling the American Constitution Society that the federal government can't tolerate different policies.
"You cannot have a system of 50 quarterbacks in the immigration system because immigration includes issues of law enforcement, it involves decisions with implications in foreign policy, it involves incidents with humanitarian implications, and you can't have 50 states making immigration law and have a coherent system," Mr. Perez said, according to MainJustice.com, which covers the Justice Department.
But defenders say Arizona's law would be a problem only if it conflicted with Congress' immigration policy.
On Wednesday, Michigan Attorney General Michael A. Cox filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the federal lawsuit arguing that Arizona's law is consistent with what Congress intended. He was joined by attorneys general from eight states and one territory.
The Arizona law has become a flash point for the broader immigration debate, with polls showing a majority of voters supporting the crackdown.
Arizona officials have said the federal government has failed in its responsibility to police the borders, and the state is experiencing a crime wave spurred by illegal immigration. They have said the new law is meant to fill in the gaps in enforcement.
On Wednesday, two Republican senators -- Jim DeMint of South Carolina and David Vitter of Louisiana -- announced that they will introduce an amendment to a bill that would halt the Justice Department lawsuit by denying it federal funding.
Sanctuary cities are difficult to categorize, and there is no hard-and-fast rule for the label.
A 2007 report from the Justice Department's inspector general found 15 cities that don't regularly inform federal authorities when they arrest an illegal immigrant, and 10 cities that wouldn't regularly tell authorities when a known illegal immigrant was being released from custody, either of which could be viewed as shielding illegal immigrants from detection.
The IG report said two jurisdictions -- Oregon, and the city and county of San Francisco -- acknowledge themselves as sanctuaries. It also said that many cities that are categorized as sanctuaries include language in their policies requiring local authorities to cooperate to the extent required by federal law.
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