The U.S. Supreme Court is about to hear oral arguments touching on one of the nation’s most emotionally-charged, divisive topics – illegal immigration.
Specifically, the Supreme Court will be determining by summer whether Arizona’s immigration enforcement law, passed in 2010, is constitutional, or whether it encroaches into an area that is purely a federal prerogative.
More broadly, the hearing on Wednesday will shine a spotlight on the broken U.S. immigration system, the more than 11 million people believed to be living in the country illegally, and the divergent views of how they should be handled.
And the frustration of local officials who say they are dealing with the consequences of federal inaction on illegal immigration likely will play out against the Obama administration’s argument that immigration is a complex matter that cannot be addressed by an enforcement-only approach such as that of Arizona.
“It’s Arizona’s right to protect its citizens,” said former Arizona State Senate President Russell Pearce, who was the author and main force behind Arizona’s law, in an interview with Fox News Latino. “States have inherent police powers. This law takes the political handcuffs off law enforcement” in cracking down on undocumented immigrants.
The Arizona law led other states to pass, or consider, similar laws aimed at making life difficult for undocumented immigrants in the hope that they would leave the state, if not the country. Courts have blocked key parts of Arizona’s law – and other states' immigration laws – from going into effect because of the belief they unconstitutionally veer into a federal responsibility.
Some states did not pursue immigration measures that were introduced, preferring to wait for the outcome of court challenges against Arizona and other states that passed the laws. The High Court, which has a conservative majority, will be looking at the Arizona law's provisions that call for police to check the immigration status of anyone they stop or detain and who they believe may be in the country illegally; that make it a crime for non-citizens not to carry immigration documents; that make it a misdemeanor to work – or solicit work -- in Arizona if a person is in the country unlawfully; and that allow police to arrest someone they suspect is in the country illegally.
Pearce said that a defeat for SB 1070, as the law is known, “will be a slap in the face to states’ rights,” and that “34 states in the process of passing laws like Arizona’s will retreat from doing it.”
Last year the Supreme Court sided with Arizona when it allowed another immigration law to take effect -- one that prohibits employers from knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants.
The Obama administration argues that Arizona’s law interferes with what is the federal government’s turf, and maintains that states cannot make up their own laws on such things as immigration.
Opponents of SB 1070 say that such laws lead to ethnic and racial profiling, and strain relations between local law enforcement officers and immigrants, making them afraid of reporting crimes when they are witnesses or victims.
“This decision will make very clear what the law is when it comes to immigration,” said SEIU International Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo Medina, who opposes SB 1070. “It will make clear whether we’ll have a patchwork of laws around the country that are based on politics and ideological considerations rather than good public policy.”
“If the Supreme Court does not overturn SB 1070, then we will have a situation where every state can decide on its immigration policy and relations with other countries in the world,” Medina said. “Police will act on ‘reasonable suspicion’ when they encounter a person who has dark skin. They won’t stop blue-eyed, white-skinned people who in their minds are not suspicious. These laws legalize discrimination.”
Other states that have immigration enforcement laws are Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Indiana and Utah.
Illinois U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, one of Congress’s most vocal advocates for comprehensive immigration reform, argued in a published editorial: "In the type of state-sanctioned racial profiling under review by the court, lives may not be lost directly but they will certainly be changed forever."
“We deported or removed more than 46,000 parents of U.S. citizens in just six months last year and could put an estimated 15,000 U.S. citizens in foster care because of a deported parent in the next five years. Think of the cost in lives, in tax-dollars, in families torn apart, and in futures derailed."
Proponents of tough immigration enforcement say Arizona’s law does not encroach on federal duties, but assists federal officials in dealing with illegal immigration.
“This administration has abandoned wholesale immigration law enforcement,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, a Washington D.C. group that favors strict immigration enforcement and which helped write the Arizona law. “People come across our border illegally demanding education, jobs and we have an administration that says ‘Fine.’”
“States [like Arizona] are trying to find ways of assisting the enforcing of federal [immigration] law,” Stein said. “The Obama administration would prefer just to pass an amnesty. It wants states to just shut up and go away.”
Illegal immigration has been a vexing problem for many presidential administrations. Ronald Reagan offered an amnesty to a particular group of undocumented immigrants, but it hardly put an end to illegal immigration.
George W. Bush made a strong push to pass a comprehensive immigration reform measure, and worked with Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., on a bill in 2007 that seemed to come closer than any other measure in a long time to overhauling the immigration system. But bipartisan bickering killed the effort. The Democrats and Republicans blamed each other for the failure of Congress to pass an immigration measure.
President Obama campaigned on a promise to Latinos that he would push a comprehensive immigration reform measure in his first year in office. The measure would have included a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants who meet a strict set of criteria, as well as tightened enforcement.
But no measure materialized, and efforts to advance a piece of the originally planned reform package – a provision that would have allowed undocumented youth brought here as minors to legalize their status – have also stalled.
“Regardless of how they rule, we still have a long road ahead of us,” said Medina. “The ruling will not legalize a single person, it won’t fix the system, it won’t help to alleviate problems we’re feeling around the country. The battle will need to continue for comprehensive immigration reform"
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org