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As the nation watches Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' inspiring recovery from an assassination attempt, the border state's bitter struggle to enforce immigration laws might seem like yesterday's headlines, far removed from the life-and-death drama of the deadly shootings in Tucson last month.
But the immigration issue, or rather illegal immigration issue, never went away. It is still front and center for state officials -- "by far the number one issue," Gov. Jan Brewer said in announcing this week that Arizona would countersue the federal government for the right to police its border with Mexico.
"Our citizens have lived with this dark cloud for too long," the Republican governor said. "It's time for the federal government to do its job and secure the border."
But the Department of Homeland Security, one of the defendants in the suit, says it is doing its job, and a spokesman said the state's case was without merit.
Arizona's lawsuit serves as an answer to the Justice Department's legal challenge to the state's tough immigration law, which requires police to check the legal status of anyone stopped for a suspected offense in the state. (That part of the law has not been enforced since it was stayed by the pending Justice complaint.)
At the Sandra Day O'Connor federal courthouse Thursday, an angry Brewer nearly shouted as she made her case for the countersuit. "It's the federal government's responsibility to protect the public safety, health and welfare of the people of this country. . . . And the federal government sits by and does nothing," she said. "It's the federal government's responsibility!"
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano -- who happens to be the former Democratic governor of Arizona -- says the Obama administration is meeting that responsibility. "Illegal immigration is decreasing," she says. "Deportations are increasing; crime rates are dropping." Homeland Security Department spokesman Matt Chandler told the Arizona Republic that a "meritless court claim such as this does nothing to secure the border."
Giffords, who is recovering in Houston from a gunshot wound to the head, opposed the Arizona law. But she has been critical of the federal government's record on illegal immigration and does not support the boycott of Arizona backed by some critics of the law, including a colleague, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.).
(U.S. District Judge John M. Roll of Arizona and five others were shot dead in the Jan. 8 attack on Giffords outside of Tucson supermarket.)
In Phoenix Thursday, Brewer and state Attorney General Tom Horne acknowledged that the legal battle they were starting would be difficult and costly. Several states in the past have sued the federal government over immigration and failed. Brewer said $4 million in private donations has already been raised to defend the state law. That money can also help pay expenses for the countersuit, she said.
"We did not want this fight," she insisted. "We did not start this fight. But now that we're in it, we will not rest until our border is secured." She said the federal government "sits by and does nothing" while Arizona spends hundreds of millions of dollars "just to maintain the level we're at."
The claim argues what Brewer says are "simple points." The federal government must maintain "operational security" along the border and finish building a promised fence line; it must provide enough border guards to enforce immigration laws; the U.S. must reimburse Arizona for the cost of jailing illegal immigrants who commit crimes; and it should allow the state to enforce federal immigration laws. The complaint also says Arizona should be protected against "invasion," but Horne said that didn't mean one country surging into another, but rather referred to the flood of illegal immigrants streaming into Arizona.
The law signed by Brewer last year requires local police to check for the immigration status of anyone stopped under "reasonable suspicion" of unlawful status. Enforcement of key parts of the law was halted in court after the Obama administration argued that only federal authorities have the right to enforce immigration laws.
Watch some of Brewer's news conference, courtesy KVOA.com Tucson:
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