Graham criticizes Obama suit against Ariz. immigration law

Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and John Cornyn (Texas) have sided with the state of Arizona in its battle with the Department of Justice over a controversial state immigration law.

Graham’s declaration of opposition to the Justice Department law suit comes as a surprise because Graham called the Arizona law unconstitutional in April.

Graham and Cornyn represented the administration’s best hopes for finding Republican allies in the Senate on immigration reform.

Graham was the lead GOP negotiator in an effort led by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to craft a bipartisan overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws. After Graham pulled out of the talks, pro-immigrant advocacy groups turned to Cornyn in hope that he could fill the role.

Graham said he suspected Democrats were advancing the issue to stir up Hispanic voters to support Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) reelection effort, not as a good-faith effort to change federal immigration law. 

Both lawmakers have criticized the administration for challenging the Arizona law, putting distance between themselves and groups pushing for comprehensive reform.

“I believe the DOJ lawsuit will be counter-productive when it comes to finding a solution to our immigration problems,” said Graham in a statement Wednesday. “It is clear the people of Arizona believe the federal government has let them down when it comes to securing our border.”

While prospects of Congress tackling immigration reform this year were already slim, the stand by Graham and Cornyn serves as another blow to efforts to pass legislation.

Attorney General Eric Holder filed a suit this week to block an Arizona statute that would give police authority to demand proof of residency of suspected illegal immigrants during routine law enforcement encounters.

Advocates who favor comprehensive immigration reform were shocked by Graham’s comments because he criticized the state law during a public hearing in the spring.  

“What happened in Arizona is that good people are so afraid of an out-of-control border that they had to resort to a law that I think is unconstitutional,” he said during an April hearing with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who formerly served as governor of Arizona. His comments were reported at the time by several media outlets. 

On Wednesday, Graham said border security must be addressed before comprehensive immigration reform that would put an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship.

“The resources being dedicated to this lawsuit should be directed to border security,” Graham said, using an argument other Republicans have deployed to oppose comprehensive reform.  “Once progress is made securing our border, our nation can look to comprehensive reform.” 

Graham said the federal government should concentrate resources on sending more National Guard troops, border patrol agents and aerial surveillance drones to the southern border.

“It’s particularly surprising because Lindsey is a smart lawyer and was one of the first people to declare the Arizona law unconstitutional,” said Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy and advocacy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

“It’s disappointing, it’s not the Graham we’ve known from years back,” said Kelley. “We hope the old Lindsey Graham comes back when it comes to solving the problem.”

Cornyn released a similar statement in response to the Justice Department’s suit.

“I am disappointed the administration has made suing Arizona its priority,” Cornyn said in a statement. “The White House must focus on getting the federal government to do its job, which means securing our border and proposing specific reforms to our broken immigration system.”