President Obama and his opponents are both touting a victory for their respective sides, following the June 25 decision by the Supreme Court to uphold a key part of SB 1070 - a law passed in Arizona that affected illegal immigrants in that state. In an opinion drafted by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court voted (8-0) to uphold the Arizona law’s most controversial component, which requires police officers to check the immigration status of people they detain for any reason. However, the Court also struck down three other parts of the state law, and therefore delivered a mixed judgment for the Obama administration as to the federal government’s power to enforce immigration statutes.

The court ruled that Section 2(B) of Arizona’s law that requires police officers to check the immigration status of all individuals legally detained on other crimes before being released, is constitutional.  This provision was attacked by both President Obama and Attorney General Holder immediately after its enactment in statements that the law amounted to racial profiling.  The Court ruled that the remaining provisions of Arizona’s law were unconstitutional, because they were preempted by Federal law already on the books.  

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a key part of Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigrants but struck down three other parts of the state law, delivering a mixed ruling for the Obama administration on federal power to enforce immigration statutes in the United States. The Obama administration had objected to the Arizona law, and sued in court.

The Supreme Court justices ruled in split decisions on three provisions of Arizona’s controversial law, which was passed in 2010 and immediately became widely controversial. The votes on those provisions were either 5-3 or 6-2, with conservative justices in dissent. The three provisions that were nixed by the high court required immigrants to carry immigration papers at all times, banned illegal immigrants from soliciting work in public places, and allowed police to arrest immigrants without warrants if officers believed they committed crimes that would make them deportable. "Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration ... but the state may not pursue policies that undermine federal law," wrote Justice Kennedy for the majority in a 25-page opinion.

Justice Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion, ""The National Government has significant power to regulate immigration," adding "... 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." "There is a basic uncertainty about what the law means and how it will be enforced," Kennedy wrote, making clear that Arizona must comply with federal law in conducting the immigration status checks or face further constitutional challenges.

While there are some who see the court decision as an election-year setback for Obama, the damage to his presidency was less than feared. "I am pleased that the Supreme Court has struck down key provisions of Arizona's immigration law. What this decision makes unmistakably clear is that Congress must act on comprehensive immigration reform. A patchwork of state laws is not a solution to our broken immigration system - it's part of the problem," Obama said in a statement. “I agree with the Court that individuals cannot be detained solely to verify their immigration status. No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like,” said the Chief Executive.

Obama said he remained concerned about the practical impact of the remaining provision of the Arizona law. "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 recognizes," Obama said.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a firebrand Republican, declared the ruling a victory, saying the "heart" of the law can now be implemented "in accordance with the U.S. Constitution." Said Brewer, "Law enforcement will be held accountable should this statute be misused in a fashion that violates an individual's civil rights," according to a written statement. However, Brewer later told reporters that she expects more lawsuits, saying "this certainly is not the end of our journey."

The American public appears divided on Arizona’s immigration law. According to the Pew polling organization, “The American public has consistently expressed support for the provision of Arizona's immigration law upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court that requires police to verify the legal status of someone they have already stopped or arrested if they suspect the person is in the country illegally. Still, a plurality of Americans say they want an approach to illegal immigration that balances both tougher enforcement and creating a path to citizenship for the more than 11 million immigrants who are in the country illegally.” The largest group of recent immigrants to the U.S. – Latin Americans, especially Mexicans – clearly have a stake in the June 25 decision. According to Pew, Hispanics have consistently disapproved of the so-called "show me your papers" provision of Arizona's immigration law, and have consistently shown strong support for prioritizing a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants over tighter border controls.”

In a mid-June survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 58% of American adults say they approve of the 2010 Arizona law, while 38% say they disapprove. It is estimated that there are currently 11.5 million illegal immigrants currently in the U.S. , down from a peak of 12.0 million in 2007. Overall, 81% of the nation's unauthorized immigrants are Hispanic. The public’s attention has long been focused on Latin American immigrants, who flee economic hardship, human rights abuses and hardships, even while immigration from south of the border appears to be flattening out. Asian immigrants now appear to be in the ascendant.

The Obama administration has effectively cracked down on illegal immigrants. Deportations have reached record levels during Obama's presidency, rising to an annual average of nearly 400,000 since 2009. This is a higher average than that achieved during George W. Bush's presidency. Most Hispanics oppose the way the Obama administration has handled deportations, according to a 2011 Pew Hispanic Center survey. That survey showed 59% of Hispanics disapprove of the way the Obama administration is handling the issue of deportations, while 27% approve.

According to Pew, when asked about priorities for addressing illegal immigration, a plurality (42%) of American adults give equal priority to tighter restrictions and creating a path to citizenship. Meanwhile, about a quarter (28%) say tougher border security and stricter law enforcement alone should be the priority; about the same percentage (27%) say developing a way for unauthorized immigrants to become citizens alone should be the priority. These views have changed little since 2010.

Hispanics take a sharply different view. Among them, 75% disapprove of the Arizona law while 21% say they approve, according to the Pew Research Center survey. This is relatively unchanged from 2010, when a Pew Hispanic Center survey revealed that 79% of Hispanics said they disapproved of the Arizona law.

The Supreme’s decision poses a challenge for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, as he tries to soften his image towards Hispanics and immigration advocates. Romney said, following the court decision, that ruling exposes Obama’s failures as a leader. "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  Romney on a fundraising trip to Arizona. "As Candidate Obama, he promised to present an immigration plan during his first year in office. But four years later, we are still waiting."

A USA Today/Gallup poll, released on the very day of the Supreme Court decision, showed Obama with a wide lead over Romney among Latino voters: 66% to 25%.



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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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