The Supreme Court on Monday struck down most of Arizona’s tough immigration law as an unlawful infringement on federal power, but it upheld the most important plank, which allows police to stop and question the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally.
Arizona’s governor said she’ll move quickly to begin enforcing that part of the law, even as the rest of it lies on the cutting floor.
In the complex 5-3 ruling, all eight justices said Arizona police can continue to question the legal status of those they stop, but the five-justice majority struck down the parts of the law in which Arizona sought to impose its own criminal penalties for immigration violations, with the majority saying that that power is reserved exclusively to the federal government.
The decision comes little more than a week after Mr. Obama announced he would stop deporting most young adult illegal immigrants, and coupled with the ruling, it marks a seismic shift in the national immigration debate.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said states cannot try to act in an area in which the Constitution specifically grants powers to Congress — in this case, Article I, Section 8, Clause 4, which says Congress has powers over naturalization. That long has been interpreted to mean only the federal government can set immigration policy unless it specifically invites states to play a role.
“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,” Justice Kennedy wrote.
He was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Sonia Sotomayer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. each wrote dissents.
Justice Elena Kagan didn’t take part in the ruling.
All eight justices ruled that Arizona law enforcement can question those they stop about their legal status, but the three dissenting justices said the state should have been allowed to enact its own penalties for immigration violations as well.
“Arizona is entitled to have ‘its own immigration policy’ — including a more rigorous enforcement policy — so long as that does not conflict with federal law,” he wrote.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, signed the law in 2010, saying her state needed to act because the federal government wasn’t doing its job.
Her signature on the bill, known as SB 1070, instantly ignited a national debate about Mr. Obama’s policy at the federal level, which increasingly had tilted away from deporting rank-and-file illegal immigrants.
Mrs. Brewer said the decision was “a victory for the rule of law” and said she’ll move forward with the new authorities for police — saying police in her state are prepared to enforce it fairly.