Obama slams Arizona bill as fight lifts immigration to top of agenda

A controversial bill approved by Arizona’s State Legislature pushing the immigration debate to the forefront of the U.S. Senate.

President Barack Obama on Friday criticized the legislation, which would allow Arizona’s state police to check the documents of people they suspect are illegal immigrants. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, has said she will decide whether to sign the legislation soon.

The issue has galvanized people on both sides of one of the most divisive issues in American politics just as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) mulls whether his chamber should move to immigration reform or climate change legislation after it completes work on a Wall Street reform bill.

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Obama on Friday called for Congress to continue to work toward immigration reform, saying the failure to act on a federal level has led to "misguided" efforts to curb illegal immigration, like the one in Arizona.

"If we continue to fail to act at a federal level, we will continue to see misguided efforts around the country," Obama said.

Speaking at a naturalization ceremony for servicemen and -women in the White House Rose Garden, Obama said he has instructed his administration to "closely monitor the situation" in Arizona and to "examine the civili rights and other implications of this legislation."

"The recent efforts in Arizona ... threaten to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans as well as the trust in police and their communities that are so crucial to keeping us safe," Obama said.

Hispanic lawmakers have increased the pressure on the administration and Democratic leaders to pick up immigration in recent weeks. They have also criticized the proposed Arizona law, and urged Obama to recommend a veto to Brewer, or to threaten to cut off federal funds if the bill becomes law.

“I’m sure the president could get the governor on the phone — I bet you that wouldn't be too hard to do — and say, 'Don't do this, because it could affect funding … from the federal government. It could affect the relationship between the federal government and the state of Arizona,’” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said in a press conference this week.

“I'm sure that if you posted signs that said you could drive 85 miles per hour, in spite of the 65 mile-per-hour limit, something tells me you might not get highway funds,” he continued.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs declined to say Friday whether the president wants the governor to veto the bill, and said he did not think Obama had reached out to any officials in Arizona.

He said Obama had asked the Justice Department to monitor for civil-rights abuses if the bill becomes law.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine on Friday said he believes the fight over the Arizona legislation is increasing the pressure to tackle the issue in Washington.

In an interview on MSNBC Friday morning, Kaine said he believed Reid wants to take up the issue but is looking for some GOP support. He also acknowledged the Arizona bill is having a role in the debate.

“Reid wants to move to immigration reform,” Kaine said, but to do so “has to find at least one Republican willing to walk with him.”

Kaine also criticized the Arizona legislation, saying he dealt with calls to enact similar measures when he served as Virginia’s governor.

Kaine said a problem with giving state police the authority is that it takes them away from their other duties.

The best hope for a GOP sponsor on Senate immigration legislation is Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), who on Thursday blasted suggestions that immigration should jump ahead of climate change legislation on the Senate’s schedule.

Graham is the Republican at the forefront of both legislative efforts.

Graham also accused Democrats of playing politics on immigration.

He called the suggestion to move on immigration first “the ultimate CYA politics,” using slang that refers to “cover your a--.”

The Washington Post reported Friday morning that Reid has issued an ultimatum to Graham: strike a deal in the next three weeks with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) or Democrats will move forward with their own legislation.

Moving to immigration could help Reid, who faces a tough reelection race in a state where Hispanic voters will be crucial to his chances.

This story was posted at 9:58 a.m. and updated at 11:02 a.m.