Yesterday, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Arizona vs. United States, the 2010 Arizona immigration law (S.B. 1070). With a 5-3 vote, the Court upheld the most hotly contested provision of the law – the so-called “show me your papers” provision – but blocked other provisions on the grounds that they preempted the federal government’s role in setting immigration policy. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said:
“Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration while that process continues, but the state may not pursue policies that undermine federal law.”
The majority emphasized two points regarding the federal-state dividing line over immigration law authority. First, it is “fundamental” that foreign countries be able to communicate with a “single sovereign,” the federal government, about immigration issues. Second, the federal government should have “broad discretion” in deciding whether and how to enforce immigration laws.
Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito agreed with the majority that “show me your papers” provision was not preempted by federal law and could go into effect. However, they dissented from the majority on other provisions. In his dissent from the majority opinion, Justice Scalia argued that the states should have the right to make immigration policy if the federal government is not enforcing its own policies.
The presidential candidates’ responses to the ruling made clear a partisan divide over how authority to set immigration law should be divided between the federal, state and local governments. President Obama said that the ruling demonstrates that Congress must enact comprehensive immigration reform. According to President Obama, “A patchwork of state laws is not a solution to our broken immigration system – it’s part of the problem.” President Obama also agreed with the Court that individuals cannot be detained solely to verify their immigration status:
“No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like.”
The Obama administration also announced that it will not assist Arizona's efforts to arrest undocumented people unless those immigrants meet federal government criteria. Furthermore, it is rescinding agreements that allow some Arizona law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration laws.
In response to the ruling Mitt Romney said that America’s immigration laws have “become a muddle.” At a campaign fundraiser in Arizona that raised $2 million yesterday, Romney told donors:
“I would have preferred to see the Supreme Court give more latitude to states, not less. And the states, now under this decision, have less authority, less latitude, to enforce immigration law.”
Romney did not endorse the Arizona law during the primaries and has attempted to soften his position on immigration to appeal to Hispanic voters. But yesterday, he called the Arizona law “a model” and said 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.”
So what impact will the Court’s ruling have in the presidential election?