Accusing Arizona of trying to "second guess" the federal government, the Justice Department on Tuesday filed a lawsuit challenging the state's immigration policy -- claiming the "invalid" law interferes with federal immigration responsibilities and "must be struck down."
The suit names the state of Arizona as well as Gov. Jan Brewer as defendants. In it, the Justice Department claims the federal government has "preeminent authority" on immigration enforcement and that the Arizona law "disrupts" that balance. It urges the U.S. District Court in Arizona to "preliminarily and permanently" prohibit the state from enforcing the law, which is scheduled to go into effect at the end of the month.
"Arizonans are understandably frustrated with illegal immigration, and the federal government has a responsibility to comprehensively address those concerns," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a written statement. "But diverting federal resources away from dangerous aliens such as terrorism suspects and aliens with criminal records will impact the entire country's safety."
Holder also warned of "a patchwork of state laws" that "will only create more problems than it solves."
Brewer responded by accusing the Obama administration of a "massive waste of taxpayer funds."
"It is wrong that our own federal government is suing the people of Arizona for helping to enforce federal immigration law. As a direct result of failed and inconsistent federal enforcement, Arizona is under attack from violent Mexican drug and immigrant smuggling cartels," she said in a written statement. "Now, Arizona is under attack in federal court from President Obama and his Department of Justice."
She went on to point out "the irony" of suing Arizona for its immigration enforcement law but ignoring cities and other local governments whose "patchwork local ‘sanctuary’ policies instruct the police not to cooperate with federal immigration officials."
The Justice Department's lawsuit argues the state law focuses only on getting rid of illegal immigrants and "ignores" other immigration objectives.
"The United States Constitution forbids Arizona from supplanting the federal government's immigration regime with its own state-specific immigration policy," the suit says. "A policy that, in purpose and effect, interferes with the numerous interests the federal government must balance."
Brewer wasn't the only Arizona leader slamming the Obama administration.
"This is the wrong direction to go," Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., said in a statement, calling on the administration to devote its resources to border security.
"The Obama administration has not done everything it can do to protect the people of Arizona from the violence and crime illegal immigration brings to our state. Until it does, the federal government should not be suing Arizona on the grounds that immigration enforcement is solely a federal responsibility," the senators said.
The court action comes just days after President Obama delivered a speech calling on Congress to tackle a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's immigration system. In the speech, he criticized Arizona's law and warned that national legislation is needed to prevent other states from following suit.
The president did not mention the lawsuit, but one had been widely expected for weeks. After the administration initially said it would take the law under review, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton revealed last month in an interview with a foreign television network that the administration intended to challenge the Arizona policy.
The Arizona law, passed in April, makes illegal immigration a state crime and requires local law enforcement to question anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant on their residency status.
Several civil rights and law enforcement officials lauded the administration's actions Tuesday.
Lucas Guttentag, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants' Rights Project, called it a "critical step" to undo Arizona's "unconstitutional usurpation of federal authority and its invitation to racial profiling."
"The administration's lawsuit is a cannon shot across the bow of other states that may be tempted to follow Arizona's misguided approach," he said. The ACLU had already filed a legal challenge, which Guttentag said it would continue to pursue.
The Arizona law touched off an intense national debate over immigration. The results of any court challenge would have wide-ranging implications, as a number of other states and jurisdictions have taken up tough immigration policies similar to Arizona's.
The Obama administration has meanwhile tried to use the law as the impetus to prod Congress into tackling an immigration bill. While Arizona lawmakers defend their law as necessary to patrol the border, Obama described it last week as "unenforceable" and a vehicle for civil rights abuse. He said a "national standard" is needed and that he won't "kick the can down the road" any longer.
Republicans bristled at the speech, though, and continued to urge the administration to better secure the border before tackling a comprehensive bill -- which would likely include a pathway to legal status for millions of illegal immigrants.
Brewer told Fox News in June that Arizona would not back down from its law.
"We'll meet them in court ... and we will win," she said, calling the administration's actions a "disappointment."