PHOENIX – President Barack Obama called a tough Arizona immigration law "misguided" Friday and said it could violate people's civil rights, ramping up pressure on the state's Republican governor to veto the nation's toughest legislation against illegal immigration.
Obama said he's instructed his administration 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."
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who faces a tough re-election battle and growing anger in the state over illegal immigrants, is nearing a deadline to act on the sweeping measure, which 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.
Brewer has until Saturday to decide whether to sign the measure, veto it or allow it to become law without her signature. She's under intense pressure from anti-immigration groups and lawmakers in her own party to sign the bill, but has given no indication what she will do.
Civil rights activists have said the bill would lead to racial profiling and deter Hispanics from reporting crimes. Hundreds of Hispanics protested the legislation at the State Capitol complex on Thursday.
The bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Russell Pearce of Mesa, said it 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 nation's busiest border crossing point, with the harsh, remote desert serving as the illegal 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.
The bill would take effect 90 days after the current legislative session ends if it becomes law.
Brewer faces a contested Aug. 24 Republican primary election, and one of her opponents, State Treasurer Dean Martin, has called on her to sign the legislation.
Also, the March 27 shooting death of rancher Bob Krentz on his property in southeastern Arizona has brought illegal immigration and border security into greater focus in the state. Authorities believe Krentz was killed by an illegal border crosser.
Since the shooting, Brewer and other officeholders and candidates have toured the state's border with Mexico. On Thursday, she ordered a reallocation of state National Guard and law enforcement resources and called on the federal government to deploy National Guard troops.
Arizona has previously passed a variety of get-tough measures dealing with illegal immigration.
Brewer's predecessor, Janet Napolitano, a Democrat who is now President Barack Obama's Homeland Security secretary, vetoed proposals similar to the bill just approved by the Legislature.
But she signed a 2007 law that imposes sanctions against employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Other state laws make human smuggling a state crime and restrict illegal immigrants' eligibility for public services.
The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund said the bill before Brewer is unconstitutional because regulation of immigration is a federal responsibility.
Others urging Brewer to veto the bill include Catholic bishops, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, and Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee for governor. Mexico's embassy also has voiced concerns about racial profiling.
A Phoenix Law Enforcement Association representative acknowledged that racial profiling can occur but said fears associated with the bill are unfounded.
"We're not targeting any particular group," said Levi Bolton, a retired police detective. "Cops are not here to do these things to you."