President Obama said the controversial anti-immigrant bill that passed Arizona's state legislature last week and is expected to be signed by its governor is "misguided." (The bill was signed by the governor late Friday afternoon, April 23.)
The president's remarks come days after hundreds of immigrant rights activists staged civil disobedience protests and vigils at Arizona's Capitol opposing the measure, which has drawn national attention.
The bill would make it a crime under state law to be in the country illegally and require local police to question people about their immigration status if there is a reason to suspect they are undocumented.
Critics of the measure say it would encourage racial profiling, lead to unwarranted arrests and greater distrust of local police in the Latino community that could translate into fear of reporting crimes.
Speaking at a naturalization ceremony for active duty service members on Friday in Washington, Obama said, "Our failure to act responsibly at the federal level will only open the door to irresponsibility by others."
The president referred to the recent efforts in Arizona, which he says "threaten to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and their communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe."
Obama said he has instructed his administration to examine the Arizona bill to see if it violates people's civil rights.
"If we continue to fail to act at the federal level, we will continue to see misguided efforts opening up around the country," said Obama. "As a nation, as a people, we can choose a different future, a future that keeps faith with our history, with our heritage, and with the hope that America has always inspired in the hearts of people all over the world."
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, signed the bill late today. Many predicted she would, although others, including members of Congress, civil rights groups and attorneys had hoped she would veto it because it unconstitutionally authorizes discrimination, they say.
The Arizona measure is arguably the most anti-immigrant legislation to date and would require anyone whom police suspect of being in the country illegally to produce an "alien registration document," such as a passport or an Arizona driver's license.
In a telephone press conference Wednesday several police chiefs nationwide voiced their opposition to the bill saying it threatens public safety and limits the ability to fight violent crime. Arizona is ground zero when it comes to dealing with the country's broken immigration system, they said.
George Gascon is the chief of police in San Francisco, Calif., and was also the former chief of the Mesa, Ariz. police department. He said the bill could have a tremendous negative impact and create significant problems for local authorities.
Gascon notes the professional opinion by mainstream police agencies across the country has always been that it is important to separate immigration laws from local ones.
"We need to recognize how this will affect the entire community," he said, especially when it comes to racial profiling.
"To say that this is not going to happen - the reality is that it will probably occur," he said.
Meanwhile Latino lawmakers are demanding more federal accountability and a stronger voice from the Obama administration in the call for immigration reform.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., is calling for an economic boycott of Arizona.
"If state lawmakers don't realize or don't care how detrimental this will be, we need to make them understand somehow," he told reporters Thursday.
"Just as professional athletes refused to recognize Arizona until it recognized Martin Luther King Jr., we are calling on organizations not to schedule conventions and conferences in Arizona until it recognizes civil rights and the meaning of due process."
In a steamy and passionate letter that floated online earlier this week Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said, "It is open season on the Latino community in Arizona."
Giving police a broad mandate to arrest people for looking a certain way isn't just an invitation to racial profiling, "It's like waving a green flag and saying 'gentlemen start your engines," said Gutierrez. "It's an insult to American justice and one of the harshest assaults on basic civil rights in recent American history."
Gutierrez adds, "We need the federal government to assert its supremacy on the immigration issue and make it clear to state legislatures, cowboy cops, and the American people that the federal government is in charge and effectively enforcing and regulating immigration."
"Obama the President needs to stand up for what Obama the candidate and what Obama the Senator, and what Obama the Chicago community organizer stood for and lead the Congress toward reform," Gutierrez said.
Democratic leaders in Congress said on Thursday they will try to pass immigration reform legislation this year. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would bring immigration legislation to the floor this year and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would try to move the bill if it passes in the Senate.
Related link: Stephen Colbert rips Arizona immigration bill
Photo: Warren Stewart Sr., pastor of the First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix, addresses the crowd at a rally at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix against a sweeping immigration bill, April 20. Amanda Lee Myers/AP