A mixed ruling on Arizona’s immigration law

The Supreme Court struck down most of Arizona’s controversial immigration statute.

What happened

The Supreme Court struck down most of Arizona’s controversial immigration statute this week, ruling that three of its provisions infringed on the federal government’s authority over immigration policy. But in their 5–3 ruling, the justices left in place the law’s most controversial element—the “papers, please” provision, which requires Arizona police to verify the legal status of people they stop for some other reason. Provisions that made it a criminal act for immigrants to seek work or fail to carry federal papers were struck down, along with one that allowed police to target suspected illegal immigrants for arrest and deportation. President Obama welcomed the ruling, but voiced concern at the provision the court left intact. “No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like,” he said.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and her supporters claimed the survival of the “papers, please” provision as a victory. But the court said that if enforcement of this provision could be proven to encourage racial profiling, it might yet be found unconstitutional. In a strongly worded dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said the majority opinion “boggles the mind,” and complained that the states are “at the mercy of the federal executive’s refusal to enforce the nation’s immigration laws.”

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What the editorials said

This ruling “may mark a milestone in the American debate over the dysfunctional immigration system,” said The Washington Post. By concluding that Arizona “blatantly overreached,” the justices have sent a message to state lawmakers across the nation that immigration belongs to Washington. But “it by no means ends the debate,” said the Los Angeles Times. Leaving the “papers, please” provision intact will only embolden figures like Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who brazenly harasses and racially profiles Latinos. This won’t end until Congress steps up and passes “rational, comprehensive” federal immigration laws.

The U.S. already has immigration laws, said NationalReview.com, but unfortunately, President Obama chooses not to enforce them. That’s why Arizona stepped into the breach. What a pity that states must remain “deeply subordinate” on immigration enforcement to “a federal government that is not to be depended on.”

What the columnists said

The mixed ruling “seems like the best of both worlds for the White House,” said Matt Taylor in Slate.com. The Obama administration can claim a “tangible victory for immigrants” on the parts of the law struck down, but the continuance of the “papers, please” provision pushed by Republicans will motivate Latinos to vote. “Hispanic enthusiasm and energy for the president could climb even higher.” But it could have the opposite effect with white voters, said Jonathan S. Tobin in CommentaryMagazine.com, two thirds of whom support the Arizona law. “This is not a winner with the non-minorities Obama is losing to Mitt Romney.”

So why doesn’t Romney speak up? said Heather Mac Donald in NationalReview.com. Instead, the Republican nominee gave us some bland boilerplate on the “duty and the right” of states to secure their borders. Until he spells out exactly what he intends to do as president, “it is not yet possible to know how a vote for Romney will alleviate the country’s problems with illegal immigration.”

One prominent conservative did open up about Arizona’s law, said Nathan Pippenger in TNR.com. Justice Scalia’s “unhinged” dissent—which he insisted on reading aloud—was full of “Fox News–ready invective,” including his “jaw-dropping” assertion that if the Founders knew states’ rights would be weakened this way, they never would have formed the Union. Scalia then moved into an “entirely political” criticism of the president’s recent directive to halt the deportations of 1.2 million young immigrants—which was not part of the case before the court. Any pretense that Scalia isn’t a full-fledged partisan is now over, said Michael Tomasky in TheDailyBeast.com. His open expression of contempt for Obama on a non-court issue violates long-standing court standards; but for Scalia, “legal propriety is absurdly quaint.” He belongs to a determined cadre of conservative ideologues, to whom “all outside criticism is the chirping of crickets.”

To readers

The Supreme Court decided this week to extend its term by one day, and release its ruling on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act—otherwise known as “Obamacare”—just after The Week went to press. For coverage and a full range of commentary on the ruling, please see TheWeek.com.

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