Washington — The Supreme Court of the United States clarified the extent to which states can legislate, regulate and enforce matters related to immigration in a decision issued June 25.
The issue before the court was whether an Arizona statute enacted in 2010 to address pressing issues related to the large number of unlawful aliens in the state infringed on authority that the U.S. Constitution reserves to the federal government.
In the U.S. federal system, powers not explicitly reserved to the central government lie with the states and the citizens. Examples of federal powers include providing for the nation’s defense, negotiating and concluding treaties with other nations, and — at the heart of this decision — the power to “establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization,” as stated in Article I of the U.S. Constitution.
In its initial legal challenge to the Arizona statutes, the United States contended four provisions of the state law overstepped state authority and were federally pre-empted: Section 3, which makes failure to comply with federal alien-registration requirements a state misdemeanor; Section 5(C), which makes it a misdemeanor for an unauthorized alien to seek or engage in work in the state; Section 6, which authorizes state and local officers to arrest without a warrant a person “the officer has probable cause to believe ... has committed any public offense that makes the person removable from the United States”; and Section 2(B), which requires officers conducting a stop, detention or arrest to make efforts, in some circumstances, to verify the person’s immigration status with the federal government.
Under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, state laws can address issues for which authority has been reserved to the federal government only if the state law does not conflict with federal law, if it does not pose an obstacle to accomplishing the goals of the federal law, and if compliance with both the federal and state requirements is possible.
In 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, blocked four provisions of the law on the grounds they were federally pre-empted.
In oral arguments presented earlier in 2012, the attorney for Arizona asserted the state was addressing a crisis within its borders by passing legislation intended to complement federal law. The lawyer for the federal government countered that the state law infringed on exclusively federal jurisdiction.
The June 25 Supreme Court decision determined that the first three listed sections failed to meet the legal standards state laws must achieve when they touch on exclusively federal areas and are pre-empted by federal law.
The rejected provisions sought to make state crimes the failure of immigrants to register with the federal government or to seek or hold jobs without proper documents. They would also have allowed warrantless arrests by state and local law enforcement personnel of certain individuals suspected of being in the United States illegally.
Currently, federal law penalizes employers who hire illegal workers, but does not punish the workers.
Regarding Section 2(B), the Supreme Court found it was improper to enjoin that section “before the state courts had an opportunity to construe it” and without some showing that enforcement of that provision conflicts with the federal law.
In effect, the Supreme Court found the Obama administration challenge to this particular section of the law was premature because there was not yet any data showing that its enforcement “conflicts with federal immigration law and its objectives.”
That portion of the decision means that Arizona police can check the immigration status of individuals they detain. Legal experts anticipate that immigration groups will be able to challenge that provision based on an argument that the law discriminates on the basis of race and ethnic background. The Supreme Court did not consider that issue in this decision.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the court’s opinion, in which Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor concurred. Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito filed opinions concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice Elena Kagan, because of her prior service in the Obama administration as solicitor general, recused herself from the case and took no part in the consideration or the decision.
“I am pleased that the Supreme Court has struck down key provisions of Arizona's immigration law. What this decision makes unmistakably clear is that Congress must act on comprehensive immigration reform,” President Obama said in a prepared statement issued following the decision. “A patchwork of state laws is not a solution to our broken immigration system — it’s part of the problem.”