Ross D. Franklin / AP
Published Monday, June 25, 2012 | 9:26 a.m.
Updated Monday, June 25, 2012 | 9:44 a.m.
The Arizona law that had come to define the state of immigration politics in the West has been largely neutered, after the Supreme Court struck down its most contested provisions this morning.
Five Justices ruled that Arizona overstepped its state authority to involve itself in federal affairs in three of four contested sections of the law under which state authorities sought to step up arrests and criminal processing of undocumented immigrants.
“If the federal government won’t enforce its immigration laws, we will,” Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said.
But in its zeal, Arizona overreached on matters concerning identification requirements, work authorization, and arrests, the Supreme Court said.
Two of the sections the Supreme Court struck down concerned Arizona’s lack of respect for the difference between civil and criminal penalties in immigration infractions.
Part of the law made it a misdemeanor for undocumented immigrants to not comply with rules that require foreign nationals to register with the federal government and produce documentation of that registration.
The law also made it a misdemeanor for an immigrant without work authorization to try to work.
But as Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the court’s opinion: “Removal is a civil, not a criminal matter.”
The federal law only imposes civil penalties — including deportation — for not having the proper registration paperwork. And while Immigration, Customs and Enforcement often pursues criminal charges on the back of workplace violations, it’s never against the employees. Only employers of undocumented workers can be subject to criminal prosecution.
For the undocumented workers, it is a civil process, usually one that goes through the administrative immigration courts and ultimately can result in deportation.
The court also ruled that a section of the law that allows officers to arrest undocumented immigrants without a warrant flew in the face of federal law. Under federal law, officers can only make immigration-related arrests without a warrant in situations where the person in question “is likely to escape before a warrant can be obtained.”
The federal law trumps state law.
The court, however, upheld a part of the law that requires state police to check the immigration status of people taken in custody. Justices were not swayed by arguments from the federal government that this could result in unfairly long detentions as individuals waited to be processed.
Ultimately, Kennedy wrote, the justices refused to strike down the immigration status check because the lower courts haven’t yet ruled on it, and before that happens, it would be premature for the Supreme Court to consider how it might be applied.
Three judges dissented.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas said they would have upheld all contested sections of the Arizona law, while Justice Samuel Alito argued for preserving the sections that made working a criminal misdemeanor and allowed for warrantless arrests. He would have struck down the alien registration/card-carry misdemeanor.
Now that the Supreme Court has ruled, the Arizona immigration law will reenter the court of public opinion, where it still has the potential to influence votes in an election year.
Some lawmakers have already jumped into the fray.
“The Supreme Court was right to strike down the vast majority of the Arizona law,” Nevada Sen. Harry Reid said in a statement.
He expressed lingering concerns, however, about immigration status checks, lest people be indefinitely detained while officers try to track down their status.
“I am greatly concerned that the provision...will lead to a system of racial profiling. This is a strong reminder that ultimately, the responsibility for fixing our nation’s broken immigration system lies with Congress,” Reid said.
Meanwhile Arizona’s two Republican senators spun the piece the Supreme Court did upheld as a win.
“Today’s ruling appears to validate a key component of Arizona’s immigration law,” Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain said in a joint statement. “The Arizona law was born out of the state’s frustration with the burdens that illegal immigration and continued drug smuggling impose on its schools, hospitals, criminal justice system and fragile desert environment, and an administration that chooses to set enforcement policies based on a political agenda.”
President Barack Obama, who opposes the Arizona law, applauded the decision but echoed Reid’s concerns about the potential for racial profiling. He used the ruling to plug his recent promise of work visas for undocumented young people and the cause of comprehensive immigration reform in Congress.
“No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like,” Obama said. “What makes us American is not a question of what we look like or what our names are.”
His Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, who has supported the law and is in Arizona today, accused Obama of weak leadership.
“Today’s decision underscores the need for a President who will lead on this critical issue and work in a bipartisan fashion to pursue a national immigration strategy. President Obama has failed to provide any leadership on immigration,” Romney said in a statement. “I believe that each state has the duty — and the right — to secure our borders and preserve the rule of law, particularly when the federal government has failed to meet its responsibilities.”