From The New York Times.
July 11, 2010
Governors Voice Grave Concerns on Immigration
BOSTON — In a private meeting with White House officials this weekend, Democratic governors voiced deep anxiety about the Obama administration’s suit against Arizona’s new immigration law, worrying that it could cost a vulnerable Democratic Party in the fall elections.
While the weak economy dominated the official agenda at the summer meeting here of the National Governors Association, concern over immigration policy pervaded the closed-door session between Democratic governors and White House officials and simmered throughout the three-day event.
At the Democrats’ meeting on Saturday, some governors bemoaned the timing of the Justice Department lawsuit, according to two governors who spoke anonymously because the discussion was private.
“Universally the governors are saying, ‘We’ve got to talk about jobs,’ ” Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, a Democrat, said in an interview. “And all of a sudden we have immigration going on.”
He added, “It is such a toxic subject, such an important time for Democrats.”
The administration seemed to be taking a carrot-and-stick approach on Sunday. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, in town to give the governors a classified national security briefing, met one-on-one with Jan Brewer, the Republican who succeeded her as governor of Arizona and ardently supports the immigration law.
About the same time as that meeting, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said on a taped Sunday talk show that the Justice Department could bring yet another lawsuit against Arizona if there is evidence that the immigration law leads to racial profiling.
Ms. Brewer said she and Ms. Napolitano did not discuss the current lawsuit. Instead, in a conversation she described as cordial, they discussed Arizona’s request for more National Guard troops along the border with Mexico, as well as other resources.
The Democrats’ meeting provided a window on tensions between the White House and states over the suit, which the Justice Department filed last week in federal court in Phoenix. Nineteen Democratic governors are either leaving office or seeking re-election this year, and Republicans see those seats as crucial to swaying the 2012 presidential race.
The Arizona law — which Ms. Brewer signed in April and which, barring an injunction, takes effect July 29 — makes it a state crime to be an illegal immigrant there. It also requires police officers to determine the immigration status of people they stop for other offenses if there is a “reasonable suspicion” that they might be illegal immigrants.
The lawsuit contends that controlling immigration is a federal responsibility, but polls suggest that a majority of Americans support the Arizona law, or at least the concept of a state having a strong role in immigration enforcement.
Republican governors at the Boston meeting were also critical of the lawsuit, saying it infringed on states’ rights and rallying around Ms. Brewer, whose presence spurred a raucous protest around the downtown hotel where the governors gathered.
“I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that almost every state in America next January is going to see a bill similar to Arizona’s,” said Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska, a Republican seeking re-election.
But the unease of Democratic governors, seven of whom are seeking re-election this year, was more striking.
“I might have chosen both a different tack and a different time,” said Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. of Colorado, a Democrat who was facing a tough fight for re-election and pulled out of the race earlier this year. “This is an issue that divides us politically, and I’m hopeful that their strategy doesn’t do that in a way that makes it more difficult for candidates to get elected, particularly in the West.”
The White House would not directly respond to reports of complaints from some Democratic governors.
But David Axelrod, the president’s senior adviser, said on Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the president remained committed to passing an immigration overhaul, and that addressing the issue did not mean he was ignoring the economy.
“That doesn’t mean we can’t have a good, healthy debate about the economy and other issues,” Mr. Axelrod said.
Mr. Obama addressed the economy last week during stops in Kansas City and Las Vegas, and has been calling on Congress to offer additional tax relief to small businesses.
And the heads of Mr. Obama’s national debt commission — Alan K. Simpson and Erskine B. Bowles — were on hand here on Sunday to press the economic issue.
The nation’s total federal debt next year is expected to exceed $14 trillion, and Mr. Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, and Mr. Bowles, a Democrat and the White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, offered a gloomy assessment if spending is not brought under control even more.
“This debt is like a cancer,” Mr. Bowles said. “It is truly going to destroy the country from within.”
Still, the issue of immigration commanded as much attention as anything here this weekend.
Ms. Brewer, who was trailed by television cameras all weekend, called the lawsuit “outrageous” and said the state was receiving donations from around the country to help fight it.
“I think Arizona will win,” she said, “and we will take a position for all of America.”
Immigration was not the only topic at the Saturday meeting between Democratic governors and two White House officials — Patrick Gaspard, Mr. Obama’s political director, and Cecilia Munoz, director of intergovernmental affairs. But several governors, including Christine Gregoire of Washington, said it was a particularly heated issue.
Ms. Gregoire, who does not face an election this year, said the White House was doing a poor job of showing the American public that it was working on the problem of illegal immigration.
“They described for me a list of things that they are doing to try and help on that border,” Ms. Gregoire said of the White House officials at the closed-door meeting. “And I said, ‘The public doesn’t know that.’ ”
She added, “We’ve got a message void, and the only thing we’re hearing is that they’re filing a lawsuit.”
Some Democrats also joined Republicans in calling for Congress to pass an immigration policy overhaul this year.
“There are 535 members of Congress,” said Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana, a Democrat. “Certainly somebody back there can chew gum and hold the basketball at the same time. This is not an either-or.”
Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico praised the Justice Department’s lawsuit, saying his fellow Democrats’ concerns were “misguided.”
“Policy-wise it makes sense,” said Mr. Richardson, who is Hispanic and who leaves office this year on term limits, “and Obama is popular with Hispanic voters and this is going to be a popular move with them nationally.”
Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland — a Democrat who voiced apprehension about the lawsuit in the private meeting, according to the two governors who requested anonymity — said in an interview that he supported it.
“The president doesn’t have control over some of the timing of things that happen,” Mr. O’Malley said. “When those things arise, you can’t be too precious about what’s in it for your own personal political timing or even your party’s timing. When matters like this arise, I think the president has to take a principled stand.”
But Mr. Bredesen said that in Tennessee, where the governor’s race will be tight this year, Democratic candidates were already on the defensive about the federal health care overhaul, and the suit against Arizona further weakened them. In Tennessee, he said, Democratic candidates are already “disavowing” the immigration lawsuit.
“Maybe you do that when you’re strong,” he said of the suit, “and not when there’s an election looming out there.”
Mr. Ritter of Colorado said he wished the Justice Department had waited to sue Arizona until after the law went into effect, to give the public a chance to see how difficult it would be to enforce.
“It’s just an easier case to make,” he said. “I just think that law enforcement officers are going to have a terribly difficult time applying this law in a constitutional way.”
Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reporting from Washington, and Katie Zezima from Boston.