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Key Tenet of Arizona Immigration Law Upheld, Others Struck

Todd Wiseman, Texas Tribune

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a key provision of Arizona’s controversial immigration law that requires police officers to verify the legal status of people they stop or arrest. But it struck down much of the rest of the bill, including a measure that would have make it a crime for unauthorized immigrants to work. 

The long-awaited decision in Arizona v. United States could prompt other states to craft their own versions of Arizona's SB 1070, signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer in 2010. But they'd have to do it narrowly, according to Monday's Supreme Court ruling. 

Though justices upheld the “papers, please” provision, several other provisions of the bill were struck down. Those include a section of the law that makes it a crime if an immigrant fails to carry proof of legal status; a provision that makes it a crime for an unauthorized immigrant to work, apply for work or solicit work; and a provision that would have allowed police to stop and arrest anyone whom they believe to be an illegal immigrant.

The U.S. Department of Justice sued the state of Arizona after the law was originally signed, arguing that immigration enforcement was under the purview of the federal government and that the Constitution pre-empted state enforcement. A federal court and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the Justice Department.

But in an opinion on Monday, Supreme Court justices said that was not the case for the "papers, please" section of the law. If it "only requires state officers to conduct a status check during the course of an authorized, lawful detention or after a detainee has been released," the opinion states, "the provision likely would survive pre-emption."

The high court left the door open to challenges in lower courts if valid arguments arise after the law is implemented.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton, who in 2010 initially blocked several of the provisions in SB 1070, ruled that individual Arizona residents may file suit if they feel the law adversely affects them as individuals – specifically if they feel they are being racially profiled. Bolton also heard arguments for and against granting class-action status in the case, which, if granted, would broaden the pool of potential plaintiffs to include any member of an ethnic class who feels the law could potentially affect them negatively. Bolton has not made a decision on the class-action suits, which, if granted, would probably be appealed.

Conservative lawmakers are already billing the Supreme Court decision as a victory for states seeking to enforce immigration laws, which they argue the federal government has failed to do. They argue it's a referendum on the president’s immigration and border security policies, which many Republicans – including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, have called a failure.

But some legal analysts and opponents of the entire Arizona statute argue that because the Supreme Court struck down the other provisions, it could be hailed as a victory for the Obama administration.

The court’s decision comes just weeks after President Obama made a sweeping immigration enforcement announcement of his own. He directed the Department of Homeland Security to begin granting two-year work permits and removing from deportation proceedings certain immigrants brought to the country illegally before that age of 16, who have graduated from high school or served in the military and who have no significant criminal history.

Monday’s decision to uphold the "papers, please" section of the law didn’t come as a surprise to opponents of the Arizona bill, who said they saw the writing on the wall shortly after attorneys argued their respective cases before the high court in April. Observers said then that U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli’s performance when he arguedthe government’s position left even liberal justices questioning the strength of the federal government’s pre-emption argument.

A previous Supreme Court decision, in May 2011, indicated that the high court was leaning toward broadening the immigration-enforcement powers of individual states. In Chamber of Commerce of the United States v. Whiting, the high court ruled that federal immigration laws did not prevent the state from passing and enacting its Legal Arizona Workers Act, which passed in 2007. That law allows the state of Arizona to revoke the business licenses of employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, and mandates use of the federal electronic employment verification system called E-Verify to prove employment.

Julian Aguilar covered the 81st legislative session for the Rio Grande Guardian. Previously, he reported from the border for the Laredo Morning Times. A native of El Paso, he has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Texas and a master's degree in journalism from the Frank W. Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism at the University of North Texas.
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