PHOENIX - The Obama administration faced mounting pressure on Sunday to overhaul immigration policy, as prominent Hispanic politicians and street protesters decried a new Arizona law as a violation of civil rights.
Immigration reform is a bitterly contested political issue in the United States but a top priority for Hispanics, who are the largest minority in the nation and an important power base for President Barack Obama and his Democratic Party.
Their anger flared on Friday when Arizona's Republican Governor Jan Brewer signed into law a bill requiring police to determine whether people are in the country legally and to question them if there is suspicion they're not.
It also forces immigrants to carry their alien registration documents at all times
U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Immigration Task Force, was among those who planned to attend a protest rally at the state capitol buildings in Phoenix on Sunday.
"I am going there to let the people of Arizona know that they are not alone in fighting against bigotry and hatred," the Illinois Democrat said in a statement, adding that the new law was a "serious civil rights catastrophe that Republicans in Arizona are unleashing on immigrants."
The law has raised fears that Hispanics will be racially profiled and police will actively hunt down illegal immigrants, who are estimated to number about 10.8 million in the nation and are the backbone of the shadow economy.
It is also expected to spark a legal challenge and has become a hot issue in the run-up to the mid-term congressional elections in November, when Democrats will defend their majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives.
Republicans, who made some gains with Hispanic voters under former President George W. Bush, are seen as particularly vulnerable on the immigration issue, which had until recently been eclipsed by the fight over healthcare and climate change.
Obama, who easily carried the Hispanic vote in the 2008 presidential election, called the law a "misguided" effort that showed the need for an immigration overhaul at the federal level.
Democratic leaders signaled last week they want to pass an immigration bill this year that would provide a path for some 11 million people in the United States illegally -- many of them Hispanics -- to gain citizenship.
The move angered Republicans, including Senator Lindsey Graham who withdrew from an effort to fashion a compromise climate change bill, one of Obama's main domestic priorities.
Hispanics and other groups have pushed for the immigration legislation, which would also increase border security and reform rules for temporary workers in the United States, which is important to the business community.
Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey told CNN's "State of the Nation" program on Sunday that Hispanics might stay away from the polls in November without a serious effort by Obama to deal with immigration this year.
"They see it as a civil rights issue of their time," he said, referring to the Latino community.
The protest in Phoenix drew a few thousand people, some toting U.S. flags and passing out T-shirts emblazoned with "Legalize Arizona."
Ramon Garcia, an activist who traveled from Tucson to take part in the rally said, "I feel very strongly that the law is extremely unconstitutional and racist, and it violates both human and civil rights."
Republicans in Arizona, which has an estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants, pushed for the new law amid growing worries over border security. The state shares a busy border with Mexico, where violence linked to drug cartels has soared.
Concerns spiked last month after a prominent cattleman was shot dead on his ranch in southeast Arizona. Police followed tracks from the scene of the shooting to the Mexico border but made no arrests.
Arizona's Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain have announced a ten-point plan to boost border security, including sending the National Guard to help secure it, erecting fences and increasing funds for policing.
McCain, who lost the 2008 election to Obama, faces a tough primary challenge in his re-election bid from conservative J.D. Hayworth this year.
Hayworth has called for tough enforcement of illegal immigration and tight security of the border.
Meanwhile at the state level, immigrant rights groups are promising to boost voter registration among Arizonans opposed to the law in a bid to defeat Brewer in November.
"Governor Brewer has to be held responsible for signing what is now an international shame on the state of Arizona," said Jennifer Allen, executive-director of Border Action Network, an immigrant rights group.
Brewer's office said it had no comment on Sunday.
© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.