PHOENIX — Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law the nation’s toughest legislation against illegal immigration Friday, a sweeping measure that supporters said would take handcuffs off police but which President Barack Obama said could violate people’s civil rights.
The bill, sent to the Republican governor by the GOP-led Legislature, would make it a crime under state law to be in the country illegally. It would also require local police officers to question people about their immigration status if there is reason to suspect they are illegal immigrants.
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Brewer, who faces a tough election battle and growing anger in the state over illegal immigrants, said the law “protects every Arizona citizen,” and said the state must act because the federal government has failed.
“We in Arizona have been more than patient waiting for Washington to act,” Brewer said after signing the law. “But decades of inaction and misguided policy have created a dangerous and unacceptable situation.”
The bill takes effect in 90 days after the current legislative sessions in the next several weeks.
Obama said in Washington that he’s instructed the Justice Department to examine the Arizona bill to see if it’s legal, and said the federal government must enact immigration reform at the national level — or leave the door open to “irresponsibility by others.”
“That includes, for example, the recent efforts in Arizona, which threaten to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and their communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe,” Obama said.
Civil rights activists have said the bill would lead to racial profiling and deter Hispanics from reporting crimes.
Brewer said she wouldn’t tolerate racial profiling.
Hundreds of protesters gathered at the State Capitol complex Friday calling on Brewer to veto the legislation.
Demonstrators have been camped outside the Capitol since the measure passed out of the Legislature on Monday. Their numbers have grown steadily throughout the week, with buses bringing protesters from as far away as Los Angeles.
About a dozen supporters of the measure also gathered.
U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat who opposes the measure, said he’s closing his Arizona offices at noon Friday after his staff in Yuma and Tucson were flooded with calls this week, some from people threatening violent acts and shouting racial slurs.
The bill’s Republican sponsor, state Rep. Russell Pearce of Mesa, said Obama and other critics of the bill were “against law enforcement, our citizens and the rule of law.”
Pearce said the legislation would remove “political handcuffs” from police and help drive illegal immigrants from the state.
“Illegal is illegal,” said Pearce, a driving force on the issue in Arizona. “We’ll have less crime. We’ll have lower taxes. We’ll have safer neighborhoods. We’ll have shorter lines in the emergency rooms. We’ll have smaller classrooms.”
Arizona has an estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants and is the state with the most illegal border crossings, with the harsh, remote desert serving as the gateway for thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans.
Other provisions of the bill allow lawsuits against government agencies that hinder enforcement of immigration laws, and make it illegal to hire illegal immigrants for day labor or knowingly transport them.