The Supreme Court Decides (Mostly) Against Arizona in Immigration Case

"Show me your papers" stands, but more consequential provisions -- such as ID requirements and warrantless arrests -- are defeated in today's ruling.

ariz-supreme court.JPGIn April, a demonstrator against the state's Senate Bill 1070 immigration law waves a flag in Phoenix. (Reuters)

 

"Show me your papers" is the most familiar provision of Arizona's tough immigration law, but it is not the most consequential. As such, the Supreme Court's decision Monday to allow that provision of the state law to stand is still a victory for the Obama administration.

Conservative critics of the federal government's complaint against Arizona had hoped for a wholesale endorsement of the state law. Instead, Arizona got permission to do what local police officers all over the country already do on an ad hoc basis -- check with federal officials about a questionable person's legal status inside the United States.

The Supreme Court agreed with the federal government's argument that the three other questionable parts of Arizona's law -- warrantless arrests, ID requirements, and criminalizing work of undocumented workers -- improperly stomped on the federal government's role of enforcing immigration law.

"Federal governance of immigration and alien status is extensive and complex," the high court held in an opinion written by the moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy. He was joined by four other justices -- Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor. In other words, it wasn't even close with five justices on board and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas only dissenting in part. Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the deliberations because of her previous work on the issue with the Obama administration.

The part of the Arizona law that will stand gives police officers the ability to check the legal status of the people they stop for other violations of the law. The idea is to create a seamless cooperative enforcement system between local and federal law enforcement. At oral argument, the justices showed little patience for the government's argument that the new requirement for local police impeded federal authorities' ability to enforce immigration laws. "The Constitution recognizes that there is such a thing as state borders and a state can police their borders," said Justice Antonin Scalia at the oral argument.

Civil rights advocates say the "show me your papers" provision goes well beyond federal law and encourages racial profiling. It is impossible for a beat cop to tell who is here legally and who isn't. Police officers, on the other hand, say the provision is a common-sense endorsement of what they are doing already. The federal government itself has put in place several cooperation agreements with local police jurisdictions under its Secure Communities program, in which the local police and the federal authorities share information about the immigration status of the people that are detained for other reasons.

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