In his first three years as U.S. attorney general, Eric Holder has had to challenge state lawmakers over their restrictive immigration bills and to defend himself against congressional attacks over the botched “Operation Fast and Furious” gun trafficking sting.
By the end of 2011, Holder’s office had filed suit against four states — Arizona, South Carolina, Utah and Alabama, considered the toughest in the nation— claiming their legislatures had overstepped their boundaries by writing tough immigration laws that encroached on the federal government’s powers.
“A patchwork of immigration laws is not the answer and will only create further problems in our immigration system,” Holder said in a statement on the suits. “While we appreciate cooperation from states, which remains important, it is clearly unconstitutional for a state to set its own immigration policy.”
In November 2011, Holder challenged three sections of the Utah law: requiring law enforcement to verify the legal status of people arrested for misdemeanors or felonies; allowing warrantless arrests of suspected illegal immigrants; and making it a crime to harbor or transport undocumented immigrants.
The objections were similar to the 2010 Arizona law, SB 1070, that has become the prototype for state legislatures writing immigration bills. Holder says the Arizona law and its imitators interfere “with the federal government’s enforcement of immigration.”
“It is understandable that communities remain frustrated with the broken immigration system, but a patchwork of state laws is not the solution and will only create problems,” Holder said. “We will continue to monitor the impact these laws might have on our communities and will evaluate each law to determine whether it conflicts with the federal government’s enforcement responsibilities.”
The Justice Department has argued that such laws lead to discrimination and racial profiling. Supporters believe the states have been forced to act to protect themselves and their budgets because the federal government hasn't done enough to stop illegal immigration.
A federal judge in Alabama declined to block many provisions of that state's law. Then in October 2011, the 11th Circuit in temporarily blocked some parts, including a requirement for schools to check students' status. The appeals court left intact a provision that allows police to check an individual’s status during a traffic stop and to detain someone they believe is here illegally.
Operation Fast and Furious erupted as a national border control scandal with the death of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry on Dec. 14, 2010. Terry and other agents were patrolling along the U.S. border in Pima County, Ariz., when they encountered some suspected illegal immigrants. The agents fired bean-bag guns but the suspects shot back with assault weapons, including AK-47s.
Agent Terry was shot and killed during the exchange. Agents arrested four suspects. The weapons were quickly traced to Fast and Furious.
The idea behind the sting operation, which began as early as 2006 and was run by the DOJ’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), was to stop the flow of weapons into Mexico by using straw purchasers to set up gun runners and Mexican cartels inside the United States.
ATF agents would allow the firearms to move upward through the ranks of smugglers until high-level criminals could be arrested, a tactic known as “gunwalking.”
The problem was that ATF lost track of about 1,400 of the 2,000 weapons involved, and they turned up at crime scenes on both sides of the border, including that of Agent Terry. There have been no arrests of major, high-level gun smugglers or cartel leaders.
Holder came under fire for the failure of the operation and some angry Republican lawmakers accused him of not being forthright with Congress. He testified in October 2011 to Congress and expressed regret over the failure but warned against “overheated rhetoric.”
"In fact, Fast and Furious was a flawed response to, not the cause of, the flow of illegal guns from the United States into Mexico," Holder said. "Unfortunately, we will feel its effects for years to come as guns that were lost during this operation continue to show up at crime scenes both here and in Mexico.”