The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Arizona aiming to block the state's controversial new immigration law, which says local law enforcement authorities can detain people suspected of being in the country illegally. The lawsuit thrusts the Obama administration into a highly contentious domestic policy debate just months ahead of a critical mid-term political election.

The Obama administration argues that Arizona lacks the authority to enact immigration laws, a power reserved for the federal government. "Setting immigration policy and enforcing immigration laws is a national responsibility," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. "Seeking to address the issue through a patchwork of state laws will only create more problems than it solves."

The federal government is asking for an injunction preventing the law from taking effect on July 29.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, the measure's champion, says that because the federal government has failed to "secure the border" and stop illegal immigration, the state must take enforcement into its own hands. "We will be very aggressive in defending our law," Brewer said in a Twitter post in which she asked for donations to the state's legal defense fund.

Reigniting Debate

The Arizona law, which gives officers investigating a crime the right to detain people if there is a reasonable suspicion that they are in the country illegally, has reignited the simmering debate over what to do about the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. As the U.S. struggles to emerge from a deep recession -- with 15 million people jobless -- concerns over illegal foreign workers have deepened, especially in the hardest hit areas of the country.

The law also shines a spotlight on the porous U.S. border with Mexico at a time of increasing drug violence. Many residents of the border states are enraged that the federal government seems incapable of stemming the flow of humans and contraband across the nearly 2,000 mile border.

Arizona's two Republican senators, John McCain and Jon Kyl, issued a joint statement attacking the Obama administration.

"It is far too premature for the Obama administration to challenge the legality of this new law since it has not yet been enforced," McCain and Kyl wrote in their statement. "Moreover, the American people must wonder whether the Obama administration is really committed to securing the border when it sues a state that is simply trying to protect its people by enforcing immigration law."

Political Tool

For both parties, immigration has become a potent political tool. Facing the prospect of heavy Democratic losses this fall, President Obama is under intense political pressure to deliver a victory to pro-immigration groups who have lambasted the president for failing to take up comprehensive immigration reform, a key campaign promise.

Republicans, meanwhile, will use the issue to rally the conservative base, for which tougher border enforcement has been a signature issue.

Proponents of comprehensive immigration reform will surely renew their calls for legislation to determine the status of those already in the country illegally. Citing the practical difficulty of deporting 12 million people -- many of whom work in low-paying jobs throughout the economy -- many liberals and moderates favor some sort of multi-year "path to citizenship" including fines and back taxes.

Former President George W. Bush tried mightily to enact reform along those lines in 2007, but couldn't draw enough support from his own party. And of course, in 1986, former President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that ultimately granted amnesty to nearly 3 million illegal immigrants.

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