WASHINGTON — After watching Arizona adopt a controversial new immigration law, Laura Long of North Carolina thinks that the federal government should butt out and let other states write similar laws.
"I think other states are going to follow suit," said Long, a member of Triangle Conservatives Unite, a Raleigh group. "States should pick up these laws. Washington should step back."
However, Gaby Pacheco, a South Florida student who came to the United States from Ecuador at age 7, said that President Obama and Congress instead needed to step up and push through a comprehensive immigration law to pre-empt other states from developing their own.
"I understand the politics, but we're disappointed because so many people are suffering," Pacheco said.
With the stroke of Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer's pen on April 23, the immigration issue once again detonated passionate reactions across America.
"It's all that everybody's talking about," Jim Delgado, a Manatee County, Fla., lawyer, said of fellow Hispanics. "It's a mixture of despair and anger. They're scared."
Almost 3,000 miles away in Modesto, Calif., farmer Paul Wenger sees both sides.
"There are a lot of people resentful of those folks here illegally working, and I understand that. But I also understand that this country was built on the backs of immigrants, and there is still a place for people who want to work here and go home."
Will Arizona's new get-tough law lead to action in Congress or swing the polls in November?
Probably not. But the potential is suddenly, dramatically there.
On Saturday, angered by Arizona's immigration law, tens of thousands of protesters — including 50,000 alone in Los Angeles — rallied in cities across America demanding that President Obama tackle immigration reform immediately.
"I want to thank the governor of Arizona because she's awakened a sleeping giant," said labor organizer John Delgado, who attended a rally in New York where authorities estimated 6,500 gathered.
From Los Angeles to Washington D.C., activists, families, students and even politicians marched, practiced civil disobedience and "came out" about their citizenship status in the name of rights for immigrants, including the estimated 12 million living illegally in the U.S.
In Dallas, police estimated at least 20,000 people attended a rally.
A smattering of counterprotesters showed up at rallies. In Tucson, a few dozen people from the group Arizonans For Immigration Control showed up in support of the new law and Brewer.
Senate Democrats on Thursday unveiled a 26-page immigration overhaul proposal that includes a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants now in the country, while emphasizing stronger security along the U.S.-Mexican border, a provision designed to attract Republican support.
That measured approach contrasts sharply with the Arizona law. It gives local officials broad power to detain anyone under "reasonable suspicion" of being an illegal immigrant. Opponents fear that it gives authorities license to engage in racial profiling; supporters say that little else has worked and something needs to be done.
Despite all the heat, however, Congress shows little appetite for overhauling immigration law this year.
"There is not a chance that immigration is going to move through the Congress," predicted House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. "You cannot do a serious piece of legislation of this size, with this difficulty, in this environment."
Today lawmakers from all parties are painfully aware of immigration's political price, with congressional elections only six months away.
"There's a feeling among some (House Democrats) that 'We've fallen on our swords enough; it's not worth it,' " said Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who thinks that lawmakers should deal with immigration this year. "They're afraid if they take a hard vote and it moves to the Senate, it won't pass there."
Arizona law popular
Polls show that most Americans like Arizona's approach to illegal immigration. A new Gallup Poll found that about 51 percent who'd heard of the new law favored it, while about 39 percent of them opposed it and 11 percent had no opinion of it.
Those numbers mask the depth of emotion in many quarters, however.
"People are really outraged, and people are going to be showing it. It has energized the community," said Gerardo Dominguez, a cannery union organizer in California's Central Valley and an immigrant-rights activist.
"When they say immigrants, they mean Mexicans. They're not going to be looking for Eastern Europeans," he said.
Latino leaders in the Midwest agree.
"If I have a statue of the patron saint of Guadalupe on my dashboard, or a rosary, or a bumper sticker that says, 'Viva Mexico,' the only thing a police officer needs is suspicion," said Joe Arce, the publisher of KC Hispanic News in Kansas City, Mo. "That concerns us."
Fears that the Arizona law will lead to police persecution of Latinos are overblown, said Kris Kobach, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who helped draft the law.
"The critics who are lambasting this bill have obviously not read it," he said. "It has a provision in there designed to prevent racial profiling. If people think police officers are inherently corrupt and will violate the very laws they're supposed to enforce, then they have a problem with police officers, not with this law."
Parties fear action
In Washington, the political parties are split and fear the consequences of action.
Some Republicans, worried that conservative voters would view support for immigration legislation as granting amnesty, take a secure-the-borders-first stand.
"Complete the fencing that we're required to do," said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Make sure we have enough people at the border to enforce the law.... It's only then that we'll be able to have a decent, good discussion about what to do about people who have been in our country a long time, and how to handle them."
Even Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., once a passionate supporter of immigration legislation that included a pathway to citizenship for illegal residents, has voiced support for tougher border measures and Arizona's new law.
McCain's embrace comes as he faces a tough primary challenge from conservative former U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who has opposed immigration legislation that included guest worker programs.
However, several Republicans fear that if the party takes a hard line on immigration, that will further erode its appeal to Latino voters, the fastest-growing voting bloc in the country. Some, such as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, say that immigration laws like Arizona's are a mistake.
"I think it creates unintended consequences," Bush said in a statement. "It's difficult for me to imagine how you're going to enforce this law."
"If there's anything good that has come out of Arizona, it's that it has gotten the attention of Washington," said Tony Asion, the executive director of El Pueblo, a Latino-advocacy group in Raleigh, N.C. "Sticking your head in the sand obviously hasn't worked. It has to be debated, and we need to come up with a solution."