Supreme Court upholds key part of Arizona immigration law

The Supreme Court rebuffed the Obama administration's lawsuit and upheld a key part of Arizona's tough anti-illegal immigration law on Monday that allows police officers to ask about immigration status during stops. That part of the law, which never went into effect because of court challenges, will now immediately be enforced in Arizona. Other parts of the law, including a provision that made it a state crime for illegal immigrants to seek work, will remain blocked. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court's swing vote, wrote the opinion, and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Conservative Justices Scalia, Alito and Thomas partially dissented, saying the entire law should have been upheld.

The Obama administration sued to block Arizona's law, called SB1070, shortly after it passed two years ago, saying it interfered with federal authority over immigration. The law made it a state crime for illegal immigrants to seek work or fail to carry proper immigration papers. It also requires police officers to check immigration status and make warrantless arrests for immigration crimes in some cases. A federal judge enjoined those aspects of the law before they were ever put into effect, but the law became a lightning rod around the country, sparking boycotts and counter-boycotts and opening up a debate about the nation's illegal immigrant population.

In oral arguments in April, many of the justices seemed deeply skeptical of the government's argument that it would interfere with its authority over immigration law if local police officers asked people about their immigration status during stops. Though much of the debate around the law has focused on "racial profiling"--whether Hispanic people would be stopped and questioned by police based on their ethnicity--the government did not even mention those words in their case against the law, instead focusing on the federal government's supremacy in immigration matters. Justices repeatedly criticized the government's argument against immigration checks. Even Sonia Sotomayor, part of the court's liberal wing, said she was "terribly confused" by the government's argument against the checks.

But the liberal justices showed much more hesitation over the parts of the law that made federal immigration crimes into state crimes, which have all now been struck down. Sotomayor singled out the state law against illegal immigrants seeking work, noting that Congress had explicitly rejected a similar law in their immigration legislation, instead choosing to target employers who hire unauthorized workers.

Five states followed Arizona's lead and passed similar laws last year, while similar bills failed in more than two dozen other state legislatures. It remains to be seen if this outcome will encourage more states to pass laws that make local police officers check immigration status. The law also became an issue in the presidential race, with Mitt Romney bringing on the law's author Kris Kobach as an immigration adviser, and embracing the law's purpose, "self deportation," as his immigration enforcement strategy.

In Arizona v. U.S., Justice Elena Kagan recused herself because she was solicitor general when the Obama administration filed suit against the law. If the court had split 4-4, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision blocking the four major provisions of the law would have stood.

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