Explosive Immigration Issue to Hit Supreme Court

PHOTO: Arizona resident Jim Shee took this photo after an incident with the Arizona police in which he felt he was a victim of discrimination.Courtesy Jim Shee
Arizona resident Jim Shee took this photo after an incident with the Arizona police in which he felt he was a victim of discrimination.

Jim Shee, a U.S. citizen of Spanish and Chinese ancestry, says he began to understand the impact of Arizona's strict immigration law called S.B.1070 when he was stopped by Arizona police twice in one month.

"I was stopped for the color of my skin. I look like a minority, whatever a minority is supposed to look like," he says.

The stops occurred less than a month after the law was signed in 2010. The first happened while he was sitting in his parked car reading a text message. The policeman told him he "looked suspicious," asked for his papers, and then let him go. The second stop was 10 days later.

  • The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the Ariz. immigration law, on which Jim Shee is a plaintiff.

"The officer comes up to my window and says 'can I see your papers?' I handed my driver's license and insurance card.," he said.

When the officer told him he was free to go, Shee asked why he had been pulled over.

"Your windows are too dark, you need to change the tint on your windows, " the officer responded, according to Shee.

Shee, 72, has been stopped for the occasional ticket over the course of his life.

"I've never been stopped for no reason, " he told ABC News. "And before the officers had always specified that they wanted my driver's license or insurance, not simply 'papers'. I felt very degraded and very discriminated against. The officer saw a brown person."

S.B. 1070 was signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer, a fierce defender of states' rights. Shee is a named plaintiff in a pending suit in the U.S District Court in Arizona brought by a coalition of civil rights groups who say the law leads to racial profiling.

In a separate suit, the Obama administration is also challenging the Arizona law, and won a victory in the lower courts to prevent four of the most controversial provisions from going into effect. One of the provisions includes the "show me your papers" section, which requires local law enforcement officers to ask someone they stop for their immigration papers if the officer has a "reasonable suspicion" the individual is in the country illegally.

Another provision criminalizes unauthorized work, while a third makes it a state crime to fail to carry immigrations papers at all times. The fourth blocked provision allows warrantless arrests when an officer has probable cause to believe an individual has committed an office that would result in a person's deportation.

Governor Brewer was furious that the lower court sided with the Obama administration, and she asked the Supreme Court to step in and review the case. The court has agreed to hear the case Wednesday.

At issue before the justices is whether existing federal immigration law trumps the Arizona law. Only eight justices will be present, because Justice Elena Kagan recused herself, presumably because she dealt with it in her previous job as Solicitor General for the Obama administration.

Brewer has hired Paul Clement, one of the finest appellate lawyers in the country, to argue on behalf of the law . She says the law was passed in part because states are frustrated with the failure on the part of the federal government to control illegal immigration. An example of the problem, Brewer says, extends far from a porous border, 80 miles inland where the federal government placed signs warning the public about smuggling areas.

"Danger" the signs read: "Visitors May Encounter Armed Criminals and Smuggling Vehicles Traveling at High Rates of Speed." In a video Brewer made in 2010, she stands in front of one of the signs and says, "This is an outrage. Washington says our border is as safe as it has always been. Does this look safe to you?"

In Court papers, Clement says that Arizona shoulders a disproportionate burden of the national problem of illegal immigration.

"The public safety and economic strains that this places on Arizona and its residents have created an emergency situation, which demanded a response," Clement argues. He says that between 2000 and 2007 the number of illegal immigrations in Arizona increased by nearly 30,000 a year. "Arizona has repeatedly asked the federal government for more vigorous federal enforcement," says Clement "but to no avail," adding that S.B. 1070 was meant to respect Congress' policy determinations while enhancing the State's contribution to enforcement.

But the Government argues that the Constitution gives the federal government authority over immigration control.

"As the Framers understood, it the National Government that has ultimate responsibility to regulate the treatment of aliens while on American soil, because it is the nation as a whole -- not any single state -- that must respond to the international consequences of such treatment," writes Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. in court papers.

He argues that while the federal government welcomes the assistance of state officers, Arizona is trying to adopt its own immigration policy while paying no heed to the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), the principal federal immigration statute that establishes a scheme for the regulation of immigration. The law takes into consideration humanitarian conditions, foreign-policy considerations and other issues when deciding whether someone should be deported.

"Arizona has adopted its own immigration policy, which focuses solely on maximum enforcement and pays no heed to the multifaceted judgments that the INA provides for the Executive Branch to make." Verrilli says. "For each state, and each locality, to set its own immigration policy in that fashion would wholly subvert Congress's goal: a single, national approach."

Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that supports S.B. 1070, says the law does not interfere with federal law, but mirrors it.

"We believe the Supreme Court should uphold these provisions, acknowledge and state clearly that states do have a legitimate interest in immigration enforcement," he says, while pointing out states are the ones who must provide benefits like education and health care and they have a legitimate reason to pass laws like S.B. 1070.

Five other states, Utah, South Carolina, Alabama, Indiana and Georgia have passed similar laws.

Immigrants' rights advocates, working with Jim Shee, say the laws amount to racial profiling. They say that even while the "show me your papers" provision was blocked by the courts, it has emboldened officers to find excuses to make stops.

"If allowed to go into effect, SB 1070 will force untold numbers of Latinos, Asians, and others who might appear or sound 'foreign" 'to produce 'papers' upon demand, even if they have been born in this country. This is contrary to our most cherished principles of fairness and equality: our laws should protect all people from discrimination, regardless of what they look like or how they sound, " says Marielena Hincapie, Executive Director for the National Immigration Law Center.