Supreme Court rejects part of Arizona's SB 1070

June 25, 2012

WASHINGTON (Associated Press) — The Supreme Court threw out key provisions of Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigration Monday but said a much-debated portion could go forward on checking the status of suspects who might appear to be in the U.S. illegally.

Jan BrewerArizona Gov. Jan Brewer declared a victory despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against three of four provisions of SB 1070. (Photo by Mark Brodie - KJZZ)

Gallardo, WilcoxArizona State Senator Steve Gallardo and Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox were among the local Latino officials responding to the U.S. Supreme Court decision Monday. (Photo by Mark Brodie - KJZZ)

The court upheld the "show me your papers" requirement that police check suspects' immigration status. Even there, though, the justices said the provision could be subject to additional legal challenges, and they removed some teeth by prohibiting officers from arresting people on immigration charges.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said the ruling marked a victory for people who believe in the responsibility of states to defend their residents. The case, she said, "has always been about our support for the rule of law. That means every law, including those against both illegal immigration and racial profiling. Law enforcement will be held accountable should this statute be misused in a fashion that violates an individual's civil rights."

Civil rights groups that separately challenged the law over concerns that it would lead to rights abuses said their lawsuit would go on.

The ACLU of Arizona said upholding the provision that require police to check the immigration status of persons arrested or detained in certain situations will still allow for racial profiling.

"Our case is just going to take on greater significance because we will, as part of our continuing litigation, demonstrate that you can't enforce [provision] 2B without engaging in racial profiling, said Alessandra Soler of the ACLU of Arizona.

In Monday's decision, the court was unanimous on allowing the immigration status check to go forward. The justices were divided on striking down the other portions.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said the law could — and suggested it should — be read to avoid concerns that status checks could lead to prolonged detention.

The court struck down these three major provisions: requiring all immigrants to obtain or carry immigration registration papers, making it a state criminal offense for an illegal immigrant to seek work or hold a job and allowing police to arrest suspected illegal immigrants without warrants.

Arizona has spent almost $3 million defending the law for the last two years, the Arizona Republic reported Monday.

"Instead of devoting resources to suing states like Arizona, the federal government should have spent time, money and energy on fixing the problem," Brewer said.

Standing outside of a Home Depot in central Phoenix, Carlos Beltran was looking for day labor work. Beltran, who was born in the U.S. but whose parents are illegal immigrants, said he was glad to hear the court struck down most of the law.

"We can still be here today, find a job and go home and tell our wives we have something to eat tonight," he said.

With the ruling, Beltran said, the potential for racial profiling will now become worse. "I don't want to have my dad afraid of looking for a job. He has four kids. They shouldn't be afraid of trying to make a living," he said.

Five states — Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah — have adopted variations on Arizona's law. Parts of those laws also are on hold pending the outcome of the Supreme Court case.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor joined all of Kennedy's opinion. Justice Elena Kagan sat out the case because of her work in the Obama administration.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas would have allowed all the challenged provisions to take effect. Justice Samuel Alito would have allowed police to arrest undocumented immigrants who seek work, and also make arrests without warrants.

The Obama administration sued to block the Arizona law soon after its enactment two years ago. Federal courts had refused to let the four key provisions take effect.

U.S. Senators from Arizona John McCain and Jon Kyl issued a joint statement in which they blasted the Obama administration for setting enforcment policies based on a political agenda instead of letting Congress make laws. 

"We will continue our efforts on behalf of the citizens of Arizona to secure our southern border," the statement read. "We believe Arizonans are better served when state and federal officials work as partners to protect our citizens rather than as litigants in a courtroom.”

The Arizona decision landed in the middle of a presidential campaign in which Obama has been heavily courting Latino voters and Republican challenger Mitt Romney has been struggling to win Latino support. During a drawn-out primary campaign, Romney and the other GOP candidates mostly embraced a hard line to avoid accusations that they support any kind of "amnesty" for illegal immigrants living in the U.S. Romney has lately taken a softer tone on immigration.

Justice Scalia, in comments from the bench, caustically described Obama's recently announced plans to ease deportation rules for some children of illegal immigrants.

"The president said at a news conference that the new program is 'the right thing to do' in light of Congress' failure to pass the administration's proposed revision of the Immigration Act. Perhaps it is, though Arizona may not think so. But to say, as the court does, that Arizona contradicts federal law by enforcing applications of the Immigration Act that the president declines to enforce boggles the mind," Scalia said.

Romney said Monday's ruling "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." He said, "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."

Mark, a 29-year-old ASU graduate, is an undocumented immigrant who doesn't want his last name used. He's still worried about living in Arizona, but said he's more hopeful about Obama's decision not to deport young illegal immigrants than he is concerned about the Supreme Court's ruling.

"What Obama did was amazing," Mark said. "Now I'll be able to work, I'll be able to apply for any job. I'll have the security that I won't be deported. Obama's policy will supersede anything that SB 1070 can do."

On the other side of the debate, Kris Kobach, the Kansas attorney who helped draft the law and has advised officials in other states wanting to crack down on illegal immigration is calling the ruling a "huge victory."

He said it will now allow other states the authority to check the immigration status of someone they suspect is in the country illegally. Kobach, who is currently the Kansas secretary of state, said it's not a complete victory, since the court threw out several key provisions.

The Arizona case focused on whether states can adopt their own measures to deal with an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the face of federal inaction on comprehensive reform, or whether the federal government has almost exclusive authority in that area. Justice Kennedy wrote obliquely about the impasse at the national level.

"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," Kennedy said.

Along the border, law enforcement doesn't anticipate much of a change from their current procedures.

"It authorizes state and local law enforcement to inquire as to immigration status of people that they have contact with for some other reason," said Cochise County Sheriff Larry Devers. "We've been doing that down on the border for 36 years."

The Department of Homeland Security responded to Monday's ruling by announcing the suspension of the program it uses to deputize local, county and state law enforcement officials so they can double up as immigration agents. The move affects only Arizona.

In a separately released statement, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, the former governor of Arizona, acknowledged that the Supreme Court’s mixed decision will make her department’s work “more challenging.”


Listen to Phoenix School of Law Professor Steven Gonzales discuss the decision with Morning Edition's Dennis Lambert.

Listen to Gov. Jan Brewer's full press conference.

Read the Supreme Court opinion.

Listen to the one-hour special aired Monday on KJZZ.


Additional reporting by KJZZ's Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez, Mark Brodie, Hernan Rozemberg and Michel Marizco.

Updated 6/25/2012 at 2:33 p.m.

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