RICHMOND, Va. — States should not follow Arizona's lead and enact strict new immigration laws because ridding the country of illegal immigrants is the federal government's job, the director of the nation's immigration enforcement agency said Tuesday.
Arizona's law, which takes effect July 29, directs police enforcing other laws to ask about a suspect's immigration status if there is reason to believe that the person is in the United States illegally.
Opponents have said the law will lead to racial profiling, and so far seven lawsuits, including one from the federal government, have been filed to try to stop its implementation.
So far, lawmakers in about 20 states have said they will push similar measures, with bills already filed in five states — South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Michigan.
"I don't think that 50 different immigration enforcement laws is the answer to our immigration troubles," U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton said in an interview. "I understand the frustration that many communities feel over the question of illegal immigration, but having a patchwork of state laws, I don't think is the right way to go."
In addition to calls for state laws, local governments in several states have either passed similar laws or resolutions supporting Arizona's statute.
In Virginia, Prince William County Board of Supervisors chairman Corey A. Stewart called on state lawmakers to pass a law allowing arrests without a warrant if police suspect someone is in the country illegally. He also urged them to let police break up places where day laborers — many of them suspected to be illegal immigrants — gather in centers and along roadsides.
"As long as the federal government shows no interest in securing the border and no interest in internal enforcement to promote self-deportation, then states and localities will have to pick up the slack," Stewart said.
Morton shrugs off accusations that his agency isn't doing all it can. While it doesn't have the resources to remove all of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants from the country, he said it is improving its ability to identify and remove as many dangerous illegal aliens as possible.
Last year, ICE removed a record number of illegal immigrants — nearly 388,000 — and criminal illegal aliens — 136,000 — from the U.S. Morton expects that number to increase with the implementation of the national Secure Communities program, which helps identify illegal immigrants through enhanced fingerprint-checking at local jails.
Only Virginia, Florida and Delaware have implemented the program statewide. ICE expects to make it available in all jurisdictions nationwide by 2013.
Morton wouldn't comment on the federal government's lawsuit aiming to stop the Arizona law, which also makes it a crime for legal immigrants to not carry their immigration documents.
Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox said this week he would file a legal brief in support of Arizona's law by Wednesday, the deadline for such filings. He asked other state's attorneys general to join. Spokeswoman Joy Yearout said the office had heard from some states Tuesday, but would not reveal how many would join in the brief until Wednesday.
In a letter to his counterparts nationwide, Cox accused the federal government of "selective enforcement — or even complete lack of enforcement — of immigration laws" rather than working with states, as had been tradition.
"Under this ad hoc approach, there is no cooperative effort on immigration but only a one-way street where States lose control over their borders and are left to guess at the reality of the law," Cox wrote.
In the lawsuit, the government argues that immigration laws passed by Congress and enforced by federal agencies take precedence over state laws.
"Immigration — the entry of people in and out of the country — is clearly a federal responsibility," Morton said.