PHOENIX – The United States could see an official about-face in the coming months in how it confronts illegal immigration.
Supreme Court justices, weighing arguments over Arizona's tough immigration law, seemed to find little problem Wednesday with provisions that require police to check the legal status of people they stop for other reasons.
Over the last several years, states frustrated with the country's porous borders have rejected the long-held notion that Washington is responsible for confronting illegal immigration. They passed laws to enable local police to address the problem.
If the court upholds those parts of Arizona's law, the ruling would codify that type of local enforcement and open the door to such tactics in states with similar laws, such as Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah.
"I think you'll see more involvement by local police in immigration enforcement, an involvement that hadn't previously been seen," said Kevin Johnson, law school dean at the University of California-Davis and an immigration law expert.
A federal judge put parts of the Arizona law on hold shortly before they were to take effect in July 2010. Other states followed with similar legislation and — combined with other state immigration laws and an ailing economy — played a part in tens of thousands of illegal immigrants moving elsewhere.
"If you want to turn around this invasion, then (you should) do attrition through enforcement," said former state Sen. Russell Pearce, architect of the 2010 law and the driving force behind other Arizona immigration laws.
Arizona has argued it pays a disproportionate price for illegal immigration because of its 370-mile border with Mexico and its role as the busiest illegal entry point into the country.
The Obama administration said the law conflicts with a more nuanced federal immigration policy that seeks to balance national security, law enforcement, foreign policy, human rights and the rights of law-abiding citizens and immigrants.
During arguments over the law, liberal and conservative justices reacted skeptically to the administration's argument that the state exceeded its authority when it made the records check, and another provision allowing suspected illegal immigrants to be arrested without a warrant.
Civil rights groups say Arizona's and the other states' measures encourage racial profiling and ethnic stereotyping.
Immigrant rights advocates, who believed the courts would reject attempts by states to grab more law enforcement power, were not expecting the justices' response. They said a Supreme Court validation of the law would frighten immigrants further and cause Latinos who are in the country legally to be asked about their status.
"The crisis here in Arizona would only multiply," said Carlos Garcia, organizer of an immigration march that drew several hundred people in downtown Phoenix on Wednesday. Authorities said at least nine people were arrested for blocking a street and refusing to move.
"It would mean that anyone, as they are leaving their home — whether they are going to work, to church, wherever they are going — could be asked for their documents," he said.
The court's comments surprised state officials and had, thus far, lost all major court battles over the law.
Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, whose office has helped defend the law, predicted the court will uphold the law because many of its provisions mirror existing federal laws. He said a year from now the state will see even less illegal immigration.
"You won't see anything that noticeable as far as law enforcement goes," Horne said. "But you will see less people sneaking across the border."
It was unclear what the court would do with other aspects of the law that have been put on hold by lower federal courts. The other blocked provisions make it a state crime for immigrants not to have immigration registration papers and for illegal immigrants to seek work or hold a job.
Peter Spiro, a Tempe University law professor who specializes in immigration law, predicted the court would uphold the police check of immigration status in Arizona's law, but said he wouldn't be surprised if the court threw out a provision making it a crime to be without immigration documents.
Such a ruling would let police question people about their immigration status if they have good reason to do so, but police would have to call federal authorities to see if they would want to pick up anyone found to be in the country illegally. If federal agents decline, officers would have to release the person, unless they were suspected of committing crimes, Spiro said.
If that happened, the law would be mostly symbolic, but would still carry some significance for immigrants, Spiro said. "It would make it clear that Arizona is unfriendly to undocumented aliens," Spiro said.
A decision in the case is expected in late June.
Associated Press reporter Mark Sherman contributed from Washington, D.C.