By Russell Berman and Michael O’Brien - 05/20/10 11:13 PM EDT
Mexican President Felipe Calderon condemned U.S. gun laws and Arizona’s tough new immigration measure Thursday in a speech to Congress that one Democratic lawmaker called “diplomatically daring.”
Calderon said the Arizona law, which is meant to stem the tide of illegal immigrants into the state, primarily from Mexico, “introduces a terrible idea that uses racial profiling as a basis for law enforcement.”
He also implored Congress to reinstitute a ban on assault weapons, blaming the increased flow of guns to Mexico in part on the 2004 U.S. decision to lift the restrictions.
The Mexican leader’s remarks on the Arizona law were hardly surprising; he has sharply criticized the measure before, including Wednesday at the White House, and Mexican officials went so far as to warn the country’s citizens against traveling to Arizona over fears they would be harassed by police.
“I am convinced that a comprehensive immigration reform is crucial to securing our common border,” Calderon told lawmakers in the joint session in the House chamber. “However, I strongly disagree with your recently adopted law in Arizona.”
While Democrats stood and applauded, Republicans remained seated and silent. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), in the front row, could be seen shaking his head. Arizona’s two GOP senators, John McCain and Jon Kyl, both of whom support the enforcement law, did not attend the speech.
Republicans had criticized Calderon for using an appearance with President Barack Obama on Wednesday to attack the Arizona law, which compels law enforcement officials to confront individuals they suspect of being illegal immigrants to ask for paperwork proving their legal status. Critics of the law say it fosters racial profiling.
After Calderon’s speech to Congress, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) called the dignitary’s remarks on Arizona “inappropriate.” “It’s inappropriate for a head of state to question our laws, especially when the state of Arizona only acted in the best interest of its citizens and with the support of 70 percent of its people,” Hatch said in a statement.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said Calderon should not have brought up the Arizona law. “He had to know that was not the right thing to do,” said King, one of Congress’s most outspoken critics of illegal immigration.
King said he took issue more with Calderon’s characterization of the law than the forum he used to condemn it.
“I’m not so much offended by his remarks as I am offended by the inaccuracy of the remarks,” he said. The congressman said the Arizona law closely mirrors federal law, a point he said has been overlooked by Calderon and many critics.
Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), a staunch critic of the Arizona law and supporter of expanded immigration, called Calderon’s speech “diplomatically daring.” “He touched on all the points he had to touch on,” Serrano said. Complaints about Calderon criticizing U.S. law on American soil were invalid because U.S. lawmakers “tell Mexico every day that it’s got to get its house in order,” he said.
On guns, Calderon said that while he respected the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment protections, assault weapons are falling into the hands of drug gangs locked in a violent war with the Mexican government.
“I will ask Congress to help us, with respect, and understand how important it is for us to enforce current laws to stem the flow of guns and enforce existing laws as well as consider reinstating the assault weapons ban,” Calderon said. His plea won strong applause from Democrats, but less support from Republicans. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) joined Democrats in a standing ovation.
While the upper galleries of the House chamber were full, dozens of senators and House members skipped Calderon’s speech, leaving officials to use pages and junior staffers to fill seats. Three members of the Obama Cabinet — Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar — attended.
Jordy Yager contributed to this article.