The Supreme Court’s split decision on Arizona’s immigration law gave President Barack Obama an important legal victory Monday while upholding just enough of the statute to keep the issue alive as he pursues Latino voters in advance of the November election.
Indeed, the president’s advantage on the issue was clear given that top Republicans either declined to respond or, in the case of presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, issued statements that vaguely supported states rights without commenting on the specifics of the tough Arizona law.
The controversial “papers please” section of the law requiring police officers to try to ascertain the immigration status of people they suspect to be illegal immigrants was upheld, while the rest of the law adding state criminal penalties for immigration violations was gutted in a 5-3 ruling written by Justice Anthony Kennedy.
With the states constrained, the onus is squarely on Congress to fix the nation’s immigration system, but nothing beyond partisan posturing is likely on that front before November.
Democratic leaders and Obama quickly praised the bulk of the ruling while fretting that the remaining piece could lead to racial profiling. They called on Republicans to join them in supporting comprehensive immigration reform but do not expect the GOP to do so. Indeed, the past decade has seen a string of failures to advance immigration reform in Congress, even when one party or the other held the White House and both legislative chambers at the same time.
Still, the political benefits of the issue and the ruling were not lost on Democrats, as they angle to ensure a high turnout from Latino voters in November.
“The part left standing will only energize Hispanics,” a Senate Democratic leadership aide said, adding that “it could [be used to] persecute legal citizens of Hispanic descent.”
Indeed, Obama’s statement made plain that his administration will look to take the Supreme Court up on its tacit offer to reconsider the identification portion of the Arizona law if it is being used in a way that “undermines the civil rights of Americans.”
Senior administration officials said in a conference call with reporters that the Department of Homeland Security had no intention of stepping up its enforcement actions in Arizona — even sending directives to that effect to field offices — regardless of how many calls it gets from local police as a result of the law. Unless the suspect is a felon, it’s likely no one from the federal government will show up to pick him up for processing. And the administration immediately terminated seven task force agreements with Arizona law enforcement aimed at identifying illegal immigrants to deport.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.