Justice Department officials told Arizona's attorney general and aides to the governor Friday that the federal government has serious reservations about the state's new immigration law. They responded that a lawsuit against the state isn't the answer.
"I told them we need solutions from Washington, not more lawsuits," said Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat.
The Justice Department initiated separate meetings by phone and face-to-face in Phoenix with Goddard and aides to Republican Gov. Jan Brewer to reach out to Arizona's leaders and elicit information from state officials regarding the Obama administration's concerns about the new law.
The strong message that the Justice Department representatives delivered at the private meetings — first with Goddard, then with Brewer's staff — left little doubt that the Obama administration is prepared to go to court if necessary in a bid to block the new law, which takes effect July 29.
Five private lawsuits already filed
Goddard said he noted that five privately filed lawsuits already are pending in federal court to challenge the law.
"Every possible argument is being briefed," said Goddard, who is running unopposed for his party's nomination for the governor's race.
Brewer, who is seeking re-election, later said in a statement that her legal team told the Justice Department officials that the law would be "vigorously defended all the way to the United States Supreme Court if necessary."
The department officials, Brewer said, "were advised that I believe the federal government should use its legal resources to fight illegal immigration, not the state of Arizona."
"Key provisions of the sweeping law include a requirement that police enforcing any other law question people about their immigration status if there is "reasonable suspicion" that the people are in the country illegally. It also makes it a state crime to be in the country illegally.
Arizona has an estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants, and the law's supporters contend it will save taxpayer money and reduce crime by pressuring illegal immigrants to "self-deport."
Racial profiling potential at issue
Federal officials and other critics fear the state law could lead to widespread racial profiling.
Goddard said it would be wrong to assume that Arizona law enforcement officers would not act in a fair and highly professional manner."
Brewer, who has hired private attorneys to represent her in the pending cases, expressed unease with Goddard's willingness to defend the law.
Goddard earlier vowed to defend it.
"While Senate Bill 1070 is far from perfect, it is a response to a very serious problem," Goddard said. "I told the lawyers that it would be just plain wrong for the federal government to sue to stop Arizona from dealing with something that the federal government has ignored for so many years."
Issue goes nationwide
The federal officials' trip to Phoenix also was an effort to see if the two sides can find common ground in the debate, which has reignited immigration as a major political issue nationwide.
A number of other states are considering laws similar to Arizona's.
Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller noted that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder met with a number of police chiefs Wednesday in Washington "to hear their concerns about the impact of the Arizona law on their ability to keep communities safe.
"We continue to have concerns that the law drives a wedge between law enforcement and the communities they serve and are examining it to see what options are available to the federal government," Miller said.
While numerous police chiefs have criticized the law, several Arizona associations representing rank-and-file police officers support it.