Supreme Court rules on Arizona US immigration case

- Posted in America by Visa Bureauon 26 June 2012

The law, known as the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, was signed into law by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer in April, 2010 and was intended to take effect by the end of July that year. However, legal challenges over its constitutionality were filed almost immediately and the law has remained subject of legal challenges ever since.

The Law

SB 1070 is anti-illegal immigration law intended to crack down on illegal immigrants by making it almost impossible for them to remain in the state. At the time of its writing, SB 1070 was considered the strictest immigration law in the country.

Provisions in the law state that any foreign citizen over the age of 14 who remains in the country for more than 30 days must register with the government and all foreign citizens must carry registration documents on them at all times; the law makes it a misdemeanour crime for any foreign citizen found without the proper documentation.

The law makes it difficult for illegal immigrants to find work and includes fines for individuals or companies found to be hiring or harbouring illegal immigrants.

When enforcing the law, SB 1070 allows law enforcement officials to determine an individual's immigration status during either a routine stop or lawful arrest, or during any time that an official has 'reasonable suspicion' as to an individual's status.

The law was written in large part by Kansan Secretary of State Kris Kobach and sponsored by former State Senator Russell Pearce, both Republicans. The law has influenced similar laws in other states including South Carolina and Alabama which are subject to similar legal challenges. Alabama's HB 56 law, also drafted in large part by Mr Kobach is considered even tougher than SB 1070.

The Argument

Proponents of the law claim that as Arizona lies on the border with Mexico, traditionally the source of the majority of illegal immigration to the US, the state has a right to enforce its own immigration laws which go beyond the scope of federal, nationwide laws. These laws will naturally be stricter than federal laws which apply to states with negligible problems with illegal immigration.

While opponents of SB 1070 say the law supports racial profiling and violates and individuals' civil rights, the subject of the legal challenge, which was brought by the Obama administration, claims that the law over rules federal authority to dictate immigration enforcement.

The Supreme Court heard arguments on four provisions within the law in the case of Arizona v United States:

  • A ban on illegal immigrants seeking work in public places without federal authorisation
  • Failure for an illegal immigrant not to be carrying correct documentation as to their immigration status is a misdemeanour crime
  • State police can arrest illegal immigrants without a warrant in some situations
  • State police can investigate the immigration status of any individual stopped, detained or arrested where there is reasonable suspicion an individual may be in the country illegally.

The justices were tasked with deciding whether or not the provisions within the law were pre-empted by federal law.

The Ruling

The court ruled with a 5-3 majority that the federal government alone has the power to dictate and enforce immigration laws and struck down three of the four provisions.

"Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority, "but the state may not pursue policies that undermine federal law.

"Federal law makes a single sovereign responsible for maintaining a comprehensive and unified system to keep track of aliens within the nation's borders.”

However, the court upheld the law's most controversial provision, the so-called 'Show Me Your Papers' provision. The Supreme Court has made it legal for law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of individuals who have been 'lawfully stopped'.

Justice Antonin Scalia dissented from the case, claiming he would have upheld the entire law.

The Reaction - Proponents

While the court's ruling may have struck down 75% of the law, the ruling has been hailed as a victory for the state with Governor Brewer claiming the ruling was "a victory for the rule of law".

"This is a day we have been waiting for, and make no mistake, Arizona is ready," she said.

"We know the eyes of the world will be upon us, we know the critics will be watching and waiting, hoping for another opportunity to continue their legal assault against our state."

The governor said the ruling had left the 'heart' of the law in place and Arizona's law enforcement officials were ready to implement the law "efficiently, effectively and in harmony with the Constitution" and that individuals' civil rights would not be affected.

Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Arizona's Maricopa County who frequently bills himself as 'America's Toughest Sheriff' particularly when it comes to immigration enforcement, said the law will help in the struggle to control illegal immigration.

"It's important to show that law enforcement can still question the immigration status of a person they stop," said Mr Arpaio.

"We have to have that."

The Reaction - Opponents

Opponents of the law have expressed disappointment at the upholding of the law's most stringent provision yet have welcomed the decision otherwise. President Obama said the priority now was to ensure that the law is not exploited in its enforcement.

"No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like," said the president in a statement. "Going forward, we must ensure that Arizona law enforcement officials do not enforce this law in a manner that undermines the civil rights of Americans, as the court's decision recognises."

Civil rights activists who protested outside the Supreme Court voiced their dissapointment at the ruling, saying it would be seen as a significant milestone in the struggle for civil rights.

"What's happening in Arizona is that we are rewriting a chapter of civil rights," said a Democratic councilman from Arizona. "Whatever happens here is going to be the chapter of civil rights for our days."

The Aftermath

The decision's consequences are likely to have a widespread effect; while the law itself may not come into effect for some time yet as more legal challenges are filed from both sides of the debate, the political ramifications are already being felt.

With the presidential election looming on the horizon, SB 1070 has been one of the major factors in bringing US immigration to the very forefront of the presidential debate.

The growing Hispanic population is seen as the crucial and potentially deciding demographic in November and, as immigration is a particularly important topic to Hispanic voters, both President Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney need to secure the Latino vote.

President Obama enjoyed a comfortable majority in his 2008 election win yet his failure to secure the immigration reform he promised combined with his administration's record levels of deportations weakened his position among many Hispanics.

Mr Romney's campaign has run Spanish language advertisements criticising these factors while focussing on Mr Romney's business success to promote the former Massachusetts governor's credentials in improving the economy, typically shown to be the most important topic among all voters, including Hispanics.

However, the president issued an executive order earlier this month which put a halt to an estimated 800,000 deportations. This, combined with his criticism of SB 1070 has been seen to give the incumbent an extensive lead over his rival with likely Hispanic voters.

Mr Romney has attempted to soften the hard-line rhetoric on immigration he took during the primary including claiming SB 1070 was a 'model for the nation' and campaigning with Mr Kobach. However, without his own immigration policy and a delicate position with both potential Hispanic voters and his party's conservative base, Mr Romney's opinion on the Supreme Court's ruling was equally ambivalent, choosing once again to criticise the president in lieu of his own policies.

"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," said Mr Romney.

"As a candidate Obama, he promised to present an immigration plan during his first year in office. But four years later, we are still waiting.

"I would have preferred to see the Supreme Court give more latitude to the states, not less. And there are states now under this decision that have less authority, less latitude to enforce immigration laws."

The American Visa Bureau is an independent migration consultancy specialising in helping people from Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries make their ESTA application.