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Scandal, scandalous

Firing U.S. attorneys for political reasons is bad. Firing them over immigration politics is even worse.

March 29, 2007

THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION'S firing of eight U.S. attorneys returns to center stage today with Senate testimony by D. Kyle Sampson, the former aide to Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales. Whatever one thinks of the administration's conduct in this affair, one of its self-justifying arguments is bizarre for reasons that have nothing to do with possible obstruction of justice. Is it possible that Carol C. Lam was a casualty of the nation's broken immigration policy?

The dismissal of Lam, the U.S. attorney in San Diego, has inspired speculation that she was fired because she had prosecuted former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe) and was closing in on other politically connected targets. The supposed smoking gun is an e-mail message in which Sampson referred to the "real problem we have right now with Carol Lam."

The administration essentially counters that the "real problem" it had with Lam wasn't her prosecution of Cunningham or the investigations that culminated in the indictments of defense contractor Brent R. Wilkes and former CIA official Kyle Dustin "Dusty" Foggo. Rather, it was her lackluster prosecution of the smuggling of illegal immigrants and other violations of immigration law. In an e-mail, an exasperated Sampson asked a colleague if Justice Department officials had "woodshedded her re immigration enforcement."

Obviously it's good news for the administration if it can show that Lam was cashiered because of differences over immigration enforcement rather than because she had dogged a corrupt politician. But another way to view Lam may be as a victim of immigration politics.

The Bush administration has long championed comprehensive immigration reform. And tougher enforcement -- for immigrants and their employers -- along with a path to legal status for illegal immigrants currently in the United States are part of its plans for reform. This is as it should be. Yet some more xenophobic factions within the Republican Party favor aggressive border enforcement above all else. These are the same people, presumably, who thought Lam was soft on illegal immigration.

Was removing Lam a way to compensate politically for the president's embrace of what his right-wing critics call "amnesty"? Maybe Karl Rove can provide the answer.

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