WASHINGTON, DC – The Supreme Court on Monday rejected a constitutional challenge to a central provision of Arizona’s anti-illegal immigration law, clearing the way for similar legislation to take effect in other states and advancing a political narrative that could give President Barack Obama an added boost from Latino voters in November.
That provision, requiring police to conduct immigration checks on individuals they arrest or merely stop for questioning whom they suspect are in the U.S. illegally, does not appear to violate the Constitution by intruding on the federal government’s powers to control immigration, the court said.
All eight justices who ruled on the case voted to allow the mandatory immigration-check requirement to go into effect. They split on three other disputed provisions of the law, with a majority of the justices ruling that each of those parts of the law intruded improperly into a policy sphere reserved to the federal government.
The justices said further legal challenges to the mandatory immigration check provision can go forward after that part of the law takes effect.
The ruling Monday is far from a definitive verdict on the Arizona law known as S.B. 1070, since the case that the court decided did not address the most contentious charge about the legislation: that it will lead to racial profiling of Latinos.
Indeed, the high court’s decision is expected to trigger additional waves of litigation over profiling and the possibility that the law could lead to U.S. citizens or legal immigrants being detained while police try to determine their status.
“The nature and timing of this case counsel caution in evaluating the validity of” the mandatory-check provision, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the court’s majority opinion. “The Federal Government has brought suit against a sovereign State to challenge the provisions even before the law has gone into effect. There is a basic uncertainty about what the law means and how it will be enforced. At this stage, without the benefit of a definitive interpretation from the state courts it would be inappropriate to assume [that provision] will be construed in a way that creates a conflict with federal law.”
“This opinion does not foreclose other preemption and constitutional challenges to the law as interpreted and applied after it goes into effect,” Kennedy wrote.
Chief Justice Roberts with Kennedy and the court’s liberals to strike, 5-3, two other provisions of the Arizona law: a section making it a crime to apply for or hold a job in Arizona without legal work authority and another section allowing a police officer to arrest someone if the officer believes that he has committed a crime that could cause him to be deported, no matter where the crime took place.
Justice Samuel Alito pitched in for a 6-2 vote to block a section making it a violation of Arizona law for immigrants not to carry valid immigration papers.
Kennedy said Arizona’s anger toward the federal government over immigration issues might be justified but did not allow the state to intrude in the traditionally federal area.
“The National Government has significant power to regulate immigration,” Kennedy wrote. “With power comes responsibility, and the sound exercise of national power over immigration depends on the Nation’s meeting its responsibility to base its laws on a political will informed by searching, thoughtful, rational civic discourse. Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems cause by illegal immigration while that process continues, but the State may not pursue policies that undermine federal law.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling comes just over a week after Obama announced a major change in immigration policy, pledging not to deport most young people who came to the U.S. illegally as children. The move — a unilateral, executive-action version of the DREAM Act languishing in Congress — was long sought by immigrants’ rights advocates and could deliver a significant political dividend to Obama from Latino voters in November.
The court’s decision on the Arizona law and the expected outcry from Latino organizations could feed that political dynamic, since The Obama administration opposed the Arizona law and sued to block it while many Republicans endorsed the legislation. The administration later filed similar suits against immigration-related state laws in Alabama, South Carolina and Utah.
Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has praised, in general terms, Arizona’s efforts to curtail illegal immigration and urged the Obama administration to drop the federal lawsuits challenging S.B. 1070 and similar measures. Romney has never taken an explicit position on the merits of the Arizona law, though during the primary battle he did welcome the endorsement of one of the key drafters of the legislation, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
A day before the law was scheduled to take effect in July 2010, a federal judge in Phoenix blocked several key provisions, including the mandatory-check measure, from taking effect. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling.
Latino groups, who issued grave warnings about the law when it was passed, are expected to generate an outcry over its implementation.
During oral arguments before the Supreme Court in April, liberal and conservative justices reacted skeptically to the Justice Department’s assertion that the Arizona law was unconstitutional because it might overburden the federal system for responding to immigration-status inquiries from states and local police.
Several justices also expressed concern about language in the Arizona law that appears to authorize detaining arrested individuals indefinitely while police conduct immigration checks. But the jurists noted that the case before the court this term dealt solely with the conflict between state and federal law, not with questions about whether the Arizona law might infringe on the rights of individuals to be free of discrimination by the government and not to be detained unreasonably by authorities.
There has been some dispute among Arizona officials and lawyers involved in litigation about S.B. 1070 about the precise meaning of the mandatory-check language in the law. While a check appears to be required for all people arrested, checks for people who are simply stopped or questioned by police seem to be mandatory only when police have “reasonable suspicion” that a person is in the country illegally. That’s the language immigrants’ rights advocates fear will lead to racial profiling of Latinos.
State officials have said police would not hold people indefinitely while immigration checks were carried out. However, it’s unclear how local police and sheriff’s departments will interpret the law.
It’s also not clear how police plan to deal with the fact that many native-born U.S. citizens who lack passports are not in the federal databases used for immigration checks. Illegal immigrants who’ve never made contact with the U.S. immigration system also usually have no record in that system, federal officials say.
Monday’s ruling came a little more than a year after the Supreme Court upheld another immigration-related Arizona law: one allowing revocation of a firm’s license to do business in the state if the company repeatedly hired illegal immigrants. By 5 to 3, the justices rejected the Obama administration’s argument that the employer-sanctions measure was preempted by federal law. However, that case turned more on interpretation of an exception in existing federal law than on arguments over the states’ powers to enforce immigration-related measures.