When President Obama discussed the new Arizona immigration law with Mexican President Felipe Calderon at the White House Wednesday, he was doing something he has never done with the governor of Arizona. Although Obama has repeatedly criticized the law, he has not once talked about it with Gov. Jan Brewer, nor is any such discussion in the works.
If they did talk, Brewer might ask Obama why he took a foreign leader's side against a U.S. state on the issue of illegal immigration. In a Rose Garden appearance, Calderon called the Arizona law "discriminatory" and said it will lead to immigrants being "treated as criminals." Obama echoed Calderon's remarks, saying the Arizona law "has the potential of being applied in a discriminatory fashion" and creates the "possibility" that immigrants will be "harassed or arrested."
The scene left some in Arizona, and all around the country, slack-jawed. "It is unfortunate and disappointing," says Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, "that the president of Mexico chose to criticize the state of Arizona by weighing in on a U.S. domestic policy issue during a trip that was meant to reaffirm the unique relationship between our two countries." Far more distressing to some was the fact that Obama took Calderon's side.
Of course, so did many in the president's party. When Calderon spoke before Congress and declared, "I strongly disagree with the recently adopted law in Arizona," most Democrats -- joined by a few Republicans -- gave him a standing ovation.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Eric Holder continues work on plans to sue Arizona over the law. But if Holder goes ahead, he'll have to get in line. A total of five such lawsuits have already been filed in federal court.
There's one from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund. There's one from the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders. There are two filed by police officers in Arizona, and one filed by a man who lives in Washington, D.C., but says he plans to visit Arizona in the fall and fears he will be discriminated against, even though he is an American citizen.
"It's almost like they are competing with each other to see who will be the plaintiff," says Kris Kobach, the law professor and former Bush Justice Department official who helped write the law. The lawsuits are also good fundraising tools for groups like the ACLU.
A suit by Holder would immediately capture all the media attention, but it would not mean the other suits go away. "This illustrates how completely farcical it would be if the Justice Department were to file suit," says Kobach. "You have not one but five lawsuits already pending on the subject, the issue is already in the federal courts for adjudication, so a Justice Department lawsuit would be completely unnecessary as well as unprecedented and would not in any way advance the issue."
Arizona officials are working on their defense strategy, which could be quite complicated. Some suits name Brewer as the sole defendant. Others add the state attorney general. The ACLU suit names every Arizona county attorney and sheriff as defendants.
Among other things, Arizona will likely set up a legal defense fund for people who want to help. The state, of course, has the resources to defend itself, but there have been lots of offers of assistance from around the country, so Arizona may reduce the cost to its taxpayers by accepting contributions for its legal defense.
As it turns out, Arizona might be fighting Washington not only in court but also inside the federal bureaucracy. This week John Morton, head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told the Chicago Tribune his bureau might refuse to act in the cases of illegal immigrants found under the Arizona law because the statute is not "good government."
The bottom line is that Obama, the Justice Department, and the entire executive branch are on Mexico's side in this dispute. On the other hand, the majority of the American people are with Arizona; a recent Wall Street Journal poll found that 64 percent of Americans support the law.
The issue will play out not only in court but at the ballot box. A few months ago, in another context, Obama said that when political disputes can't be solved by other means, then "that's what elections are for." He's right.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appears on www.ExaminerPolitics.com ExaminerPolitics.com.