National Debate Over Arizona Law Shifts To Local Stage, Campaign Trail

National Debate Over Arizona Law Shifts to Local Stage, Campaign Trail, June 4, 2010

The debate over Arizona's immigration law is reverberating on Main Streets across the country, as national attention on the policy has led some cities to boycott the state, forced others to scrutinize their own rules toward illegal immigrants and compelled candidates for office to make it their signature campaign issue.

In Madison, Wis., the City Council passed a resolution demanding a sheriff stop reporting non-citizens in his jail to federal authorities, which he's been doing for years. The council, which is powerless to enforce its resolution, wants Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney to contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement only for suspects held on felony charges.

Meanwhile, several candidates for state and federal office are building their campaigns around a pledge to bring Arizona's law to voters in their state, seizing on the immigration issue much in the way Tea Party-tied candidates have focused on concerns over the national debt and big government.

The Arizona law is particularly prominent in races in Florida, the state with the third-highest illegal immigration population in the country.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott, a businessman who was an active opponent of health care overhaul, has made the immigration pledge a centerpiece of his campaign and is using the issue to hammer his competition.

'Rick Scott backs Arizona's law. He'll bring it to Florida and let our police check if the people they arrest are here legally — it's common sense,' a recent ad from the Scott campaign said.

Other Republican candidates in Florida races have tempered their criticism of the Arizona law in the weeks since it passed. Attorney General Bill McCollum, who polls show is leading the GOP gubernatorial primary field, said in a statement last month that he would support a 'similar law' for his state — after previously calling the law 'far out.' GOP Senate candidate Marco Rubio also backed the law last month after initially criticizing it. Both candidates threw their support behind it after Arizona lawmakers amended the bill to address concerns over racial profiling.

The law makes illegal immigration a state crime and requires police to try to verify the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant, provided they don't question them for that reason alone.

Some law enforcement officials have criticized the policy, saying it could hinder police work. President Obama has called the law misguided.

But while the federal government considers whether to challenge the law in court, the turnout of the elections this fall could determine whether other states follow Arizona's lead.

In Georgia, Republican gubernatorial candidate Nathan Deal said he'll press for a similar bill if he wins the election. He said in a statement that he agrees with Arizona that 'the federal government has failed miserably at protecting our borders.'

In Colorado, Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis said shortly after the law passed that he wants to follow in Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's footsteps if he wins.

'The federal government has refused to act and finally some governor stood up and said, 'We are stopping the retreat. No more retreat. Federal government, if you are not going to do it, we are going to do it,' because it has impacts to all the parties involved in the state of Arizona,' McInnis said on a local radio show.

Lawmakers have also moved to introduce similar measures in their states' assemblies, though it's unclear whether the climate is ripe for passage. Rhode Island Rep. Peter Palumbo filed a nearly identical bill last month, but he acknowledged it would be difficult to pass the law in his state.

Demonstrations on both sides of the issue are planned in the weeks and months ahead; supporters of the law will rally in Phoenix Saturday at an event reportedly led by two Florida radio hosts.