The Supreme Court took a dim view of the Obama administration’s effort to halt Arizona’s immigration-crackdown law, with the justices signaling an inclination during oral arguments Wednesday to approve requiring police to check the status of those suspected of being in the U.S. illegally.
At stake is not only Arizona’s law but those in a handful of other states that followed Arizona’s lead over the past two years — all of which have been put at least partly on hold as challenges wind their way through the federal courts.
While the justices seemed inclined to let the police immigration checks stand — as long as they don’t substantially increase the amount of time citizens and legal immigrants are detained — the fate of the other contentious provisions was less clear.
At root, the battle came down to whether Arizona is trying to help or hinder the federal government’s immigration policy.
“The framers vested in the national government the authority over immigration because they understood that the way this nation treats citizens of other countries is a vital aspect of our foreign relations,” Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., the government’s top constitutional lawyer, told the court.
But several justices said when it came to the immigration checks, it appeared Arizona was only trying to help.
“It seems to me the federal government just doesn’t want to know who’s here illegally,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said at one point.
Federal law already lets local police call and check immigration status — and in some instances even requires it for prisons and jails. Mr. Verrilli said immigration-status checks are fine as long as police perform them voluntarily, but he said Arizona crossed a line by making it mandatory.
The justices on both sides of the court’s ideological divide didn’t buy that.
“You can see it’s not selling very well — why don’t you try to come up with something else?” said Justice Sonia Sotomayor, appointed by President Obama.
In addition to the immigration checks, the Arizona law — known as S.B. 1070 — had three other provisions blocked by lower courts: giving police the power to arrest anyone they think committed a crime that would get them deported, making it a state crime for an illegal immigrant to apply for a job, and requiring legal immigrants to carry their papers with them at all times.
The Obama administration was on its firmest ground when it argued that Arizona went too far in making it illegal for an illegal immigrant to apply for a job.
Federal law chiefly targets employers, not employees, and Mr. Verrilli said adding stiffer penalties at the state level is not coordination. He said Congress’ 1986 immigration law laying out legal penalties was meant to be a comprehensive scheme, and Congress left employees untouched.
Justice Sotomayor seemed to agree.
“It seems odd to think the federal government is deciding on employer sanctions and has unconsciously decided not to punish employees,” she told Paul D. Clement, who argued the case on behalf of Arizona.