When Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer confronted President Barack Obama on a tarmac and thrust an accusing finger at him, it was a small skirmish in a larger battle between Brewer and the Obama administration.
The two have clashed over the fate of a controversial new immigration law Arizona passed in 2010. The law, which authorized police officers to check the immigration status of people they detained during routine stops, was immensely polarizing. Democrats and immigration advocates condemned it as discriminatory, while state legislatures in Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama used it as a model for their own laws tightening enforcement.
The Arizona law also initiated a pattern that would play out across the country: a state would pass a new immigration law, and the Department of Justice would sue to block it. Enforcing immigration law is a responsibility reserved for the federal government, and the Department of Justice argued in many cases that the state laws tried to supplant that power by essentially making local law enforcement into immigration agents.
Brewer's rebuttal to that argument has been that the new law is necessary to make up for the federal government's failing to do its job. She lashed out at the Department of Justice's lawsuit, calling it a massive waste of taxpayer funds.
As a direct result of failed and inconsistent federal enforcement, Arizona is under attack from violent Mexican drug and immigrant smuggling cartels, Brewer said in a July 2010 press release. Now, Arizona is under attack in federal court from President Obama and his Department of Justice.
Similar condemnations appear in Brewer's book, Scorpions for Breakfast: My Fight Against Special Interests, Liberal Media and Cynical Politicos to Secure America's Border, and a White House official said that the heated runway encounter between Obama and Brewer involved Obama criticizing a passage in the book describing Brewer's visit to the Oval Office.
In the book, Brewer writes of the president's lecturing tone and lack of commitment, and later expresses astonishment at Obama speaking out against the immigration law shortly before the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit, alleging that Obama had broken his promise to not attempt to influence the outcome of a Department of Justice review.
The Obama administration was behaving as if its duty to another country was greater than its duty to the residents of Arizona, Brewer wrote, later adding that if enough states started enforcing federal immigration law, eventually the law would actually mean something, and I don't think [the administration] ever wanted that.
Brewer appealed a federal judge's decision to block parts of the law, and the dispute has ascended to the Supreme Court. The court's ruling could have profound implications as more states and localities weigh passing stringent new immigration laws.