The Supreme Court on Monday struck down most of Arizona’s tough immigration law as an unlawful infringement on federal power, but upheld what backers called the “heart” of the law, which lets police stop and question the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally.
In the complex ruling, all eight justices said police can question the legal status of those they stop, but a 5-3 majority struck down Arizona’s attempts to create state penalties that seek to mimic or, in one case, go beyond the federal law.
“The sound exercise of national power over immigration depends on the nation’s meeting its responsibility to base its laws on a political will informed by searching, thoughtful, rational civic discourse,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority. “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.”
The decision was announced a little more than a week after President Obama said he would stop deporting most illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. while they were minors, a move that, coupled with Monday’s ruling, marks a seismic shift in the immigration debate and forces it to the forefront of the national agenda.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, said she will move quickly to begin letting police enforce the immigration status checks, but the Obama administration said it will issue guidance to federal immigration authorities telling them not to bother picking up illegal immigrants unless they have serious crimes on their records or are otherwise considered priorities for deportation.
“What this decision makes unmistakably clear is that Congress must act on comprehensive immigration reform,” Mr. Obama said in a statement. “A patchwork of state laws is not a solution to our broken immigration system — it’s part of the problem.”
Both sides in the debate said the decision underscores the need for a broad federal solution to the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now in the U.S. — but Mitt Romney, Mr. Obama’s likely Republican opponent in the November general election, said he still sees a bigger role for states on immigration even in light of the court’s ruling.
“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,” he said. “As candidate Obama, he promised to present an immigration plan during his first year in office. But four years later, we are still waiting.”
The court majority said states cannot try to act in an area where the Constitution specifically grants powers to Congress — in this case Article I, Section 8, Clause 4, which says Congress has powers over naturalization. That has long been interpreted to mean that only the federal government can set immigration policy unless it specifically invites states to play a role.
“Permitting the state to impose its own penalties for the federal offenses here would conflict with the careful framework Congress adopted,” Justice Kennedy said in an opinion joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. each wrote dissents saying that while they agree that Arizona police can question legal status, the state also should be allowed to enact its own penalties when those laws are meant to work with, not against, the federal government.
In an opinion that delved into the state of law at the country’s founding, Justice Scalia said that when the Constitution was written, the question wasn’t whether states had power to exclude foreigners — which he said they clearly did — but rather whether the federal government had that power as well.