A federal appeals court ruled Monday that Arizona overstepped its bounds with last year's immigration enforcement law, handing the Obama administration another victory as it tries to squelch states' efforts on immigration enforcement.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling 2-1, upheld a lower court's decision that Congress doesn't want states meddling in immigration. The appeals court said that nullifies Arizona's attempt to empower local police to detain and question those they suspect are in the country illegally.
"Foreign policy is not and cannot be determined by the several states," Judge John T. Noonan Jr. wrote in his concurring opinion. "Foreign policy is determined by the nation as the nation interacts with other nations. Whatever in any substantial degree attempts to express a policy by a single state or by several states toward other nations enters an exclusively federal field."
Arizona's attempt last year to step up local enforcement of immigration laws sparked a national debate about immigration, and drew praise and condemnation upon the state.
National immigrant rights groups called for boycotts of the state, but legislators elsewhere tried to copy the law.
Fearing the efforts would spread to other states, the Obama administration sued, saying the national government alone has the power to decide how immigration laws are enforced.
Monday's ruling is a clear-cut victory for the federal government in that respect.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the legislation and became its national champion, said the decision "does harm to the safety and well-being of Arizonans who suffer the negative effects of illegal immigration."
She and state Attorney General Tom Horne said they will pursue an appeal, either to the full 9th Circuit or to the Supreme Court.
For a decade, Arizona has been ground zero for illegal immigration. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans each year test the holes in the southern border, and a rising fear of drug-fueled violence just across border in Mexico left Arizona lawmakers fearing a spillover effect.
They said their goal was to try to force illegal immigrants to flee their state, and the law they passed gave police the authority to stop and check the legal status of those they suspected were in the country illegally. It also allowed police to arrest people without a warrant if police thought they had committed crimes for which they could be deported.
Lawmakers in states across the country have watched Arizona's efforts with keen interest, and many vowed to try to enact their own such laws.
Critics said Arizona's law could lead to racial profiling, and the Obama administration sued, arguing that a patchwork of state-by-state immigration policies trampled on the federal government's rights.
The key parts of the law have never gone into effect. A federal district court halted those provisions last year, and they have remained in limbo since that time, pending the outcome of court challenges.
The legal battle is matched by the political fight over immigration.
President Obama has called for Congress to pass a bill legalizing most illegal immigrants, while Republicans say they instead want Mr. Obama to boost enforcement and to use states as a force multiplier.
"Arizona has taken a reasonable, constitutional approach to compensate for the administration's dereliction of duty," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, Texas Republican. "Every state has a duty and a right to protect its citizens. I find it ironic the administration has sued Arizona for enforcing the law while [federal officials] largely ignore it."
One part of Monday's ruling is bound to attract disproportionate attention: The two judges in the majority referred to statements from Mexican officials that foreign relations would be harmed by the law.
Judge Carlos T. Bea, the dissenting judge, said considering the opinions of foreign governments would essentially give a "heckler's veto" to other countries.
Judge Bea said the majority's opinion made attacks on the state law that even the government didn't make in its case, and said far from intending to prevent states from acting on immigration, Congress at times invites the help.
"The majority misreads the meaning of the relevant federal statutes to ignore what is plain in the statutes - Congress intended state and local police officers to participate in the enforcement of federal immigration law," Judge Bea wrote.
The judges' heated writings could be a reflection on the divisiveness of immigration in the political debate. Judge Richard A. Paez, in his majority opinion, said Judge Bea "resorted to fairy tale quotes and other superfluous and distracting rhetoric" in his dissent.
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