WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday upheld part of Arizona’s strict border-control law, which compels the state’s law enforcement officers to check the residency status of people they suspect are in the country illegally.
In a complex decision that keeps immigration on the political front burner, the court struck some border-control provisions but said it was too soon to say whether Arizona went too far with the ID check requirement, dubbed “show me your papers” by the law’s opponents.
“The federal government has brought suit against a sovereign state to challenge the provision even before the law has taken effect,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority, adding that “there is a basic uncertainty about what the law means and how it will be enforced.”
Legally, the 5-3 decision is a mixed bag for the Obama administration. It lost on the highest-profile challenge while prevailing on several others. Politically, this partial loss could actually help the administration, which is doing everything it can to distinguish President Barack Obama from presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York already has promised to introduce a bill rebutting the court. The measure has no chance of passing this year through a divided Congress, but it could sharpen a debate that Democratic strategists such as Schumer think can help them among the nation’s 21 million Hispanic voters.
The decision comes on the heels of Obama’s June 15 directive to immigration officials to stop deporting certain young undocumented workers, which energized the campaign in the Hispanic community. Romney, who was a hard-liner on illegal immigration during the primary campaign, soft-pedaled his complaints about Obama’s policy change.
On Monday, too, Romney steered clear of his more strident primary rhetoric. While he declared during an Arizona debate in February that “the right course for America is to drop these lawsuits against Arizona and other states that are trying to do the job Barack Obama isn’t doing,” on Monday he stressed that the ruling “underscores the need for a president who will lead on this critical issue and work in a bipartisan fashion.”
Obama vowed to keep watch on Arizona. “Going forward, we must ensure that Arizona law enforcement officials do not enforce this law in a manner that undermines the civil rights of Americans,” he said in a statement.
Department of Homeland Security officials elaborated Monday with a field directive ordering its officers to retain their current enforcement priorities, which focus on criminal aliens. Practically speaking, this means that an illegal immigrant caught up by a routine Arizona ID check probably won’t be put into federal detention unless he or she has another, serious criminal problem.
Citing congressional failures to deal effectively with immigration, as well as the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants who live in the United States, state legislators included several far-reaching provisions in the 2010 law called the Arizona Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act.
The law requires Arizona law enforcement personnel who’ve detained individuals for other legitimate reasons to check their residency status if the officers have a “reasonable suspicion” that the detainees are illegal immigrants. When someone is arrested, residency status must be confirmed before the person is released. This section now can go into effect, after which other legal challenges can be filed.
In addition to the residency checks, the Arizona law made it a state crime to be in the United States without authorization, as well as a state crime for an illegal immigrant to work or seek work without authorization. The law also allowed warrantless arrests of illegal immigrants who local law enforcement officers believe have committed an offense that makes them deportable from the United States.
The court struck down these provisions as intrusions on federal authority.
“Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration,” Kennedy acknowledged, “but the state may not pursue policies that undermine federal law.”
Five justices – Kennedy, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor – agreed, while three justices – Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito – disagreed in whole or in part. Justice Elena Kagan didn’t participate in the case, the last one to be argued during the term that began in October, as her former colleagues in the solicitor general’s office had tried to block Arizona’s law.
“The issue here is a stark one,” Scalia wrote in dissent. “Are the sovereign states at the mercy of the federal executive’s refusal to enforce the nation’s immigration laws?”
South Carolina, Idaho, Florida and 13 other states allied with Arizona, arguing for the power to impose certain immigration measures if they chose. House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and 16 other House Democrats from California took the opposite tack. On both sides, dozens of amicus briefs pressed different points.