Supreme Court to hear Arizona immigration case in 2012

The U.S. Supreme Court announced on Monday that it is going to hear three politically charged cases in its upcoming 2012 session. First, the State of Arizona’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling against parts of a draconian immigration law. Second, a challenge to the Obama administration’s health care reform. Third, ruling on a contentious congressional redistrict controversy in Texas.

In each of these cases, the court’s deliberations are likely to become embroiled with election year politics. Decisions are expected to come down in June of 2012, which will make it hard for them not to have an electoral impact.

Arizona seeks to overturn an earlier ruling by the federal court of appeals for the 9th District, which supported a suit by the Obama administration against the controversial SB 1070 immigration law. The administration based its argument on the idea that certain aspects of the Arizona law infringe upon the domain of the federal government.

These aspects, which are blocked by the 9th District appeals court’s ruling this past summer, include:

  • Establishing that simply being in the country without authorization, and failing to register with the federal government, is a state crime.
  • Making it illegal, under state law, to work or to solicit employment if one is in the country without authorization.
  • Requiring state and local police officers to look into the immigration status of people they stop or arrest if they believe they might be undocumented immigrants, before they can be released. Immigrants’ rights activists see this as opening the door to unlimited profiling of Latinos and others.
  • It allows arrest without warrant of persons police believe may have committed crimes that would subject them to deportation if convicted.

The Arizona law has led to massive protest demonstrations and boycotts of the state. It has also encouraged other right-wing, Republican-dominated state legislatures to pass laws that are as drastic or worse, especially a recent one in Alabama.

Arizona Republican politicians, including Governor Jan Brewer, defend the law as necessary to stop what they call an “invasion” of “illegal aliens”. They argue, also, that the federal government cannot claim an exclusive right to run immigration enforcement operations when it is actually not doing so. Brewer claims that the law was necessary to protect Arizonans from a wave of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, though most experts think her lurid claims are wildly exaggerated.

Anti-immigration organizations hailed the decision of the court to hear the Arizona case. The administration and pro-immigrant groups were less enthusiastic. However, the National Immigration Forum, which favors legalization of the undocumented, sounded a hopeful note: “Draconian, state based laws make our communities less safe, are costly to U.S. taxpayers and fail to fix our immigration challenges. These laws disrupt community policing initiatives and burden local police departments with responsibilities that belong to the federal government. Local police serve the public best when they are focused on protecting communities, rather than demanding papers and attempting to sort out technical immigration questions. We look forward to the Supreme Court’s decision and urge the federal government to put politics aside [and] start work soon on a comprehensive fix to our immigration system”

In fact, the Obama administration has done some of the things the Republicans demand. Most notably, it has sharply increased the rate of deportations as compared to the Bush administration, dismaying many in the Latino and immigrants’ rights movement. It has also put taxpayer money into a border fence, and sent National Guard troops to the border. Through its Secure Communities Program, it is already deputizing state, county and local police to carry out the functions of immigration enforcement agents.

The major positive step the Obama administration has taken in response to the demands of the immigrants’ rights movement is to announce that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the branch of the Department of Homeland Security which is in charge of these things, will be encouraged to use more discretion as to who, among both people currently in immigration custody that those not yet arrested, should be deported.

The idea is that the focus now will be heavily on deporting people who have serious criminal records, and not on family people who, aside from the immigration infraction, do not have such records. This has, of course, been sharply criticized by the Republicans.

The motive of mostly Republican politicians for introducing these immigration laws has to be seen in the light of electoral politics. No matter how much the Democratic administration might “crack down on immigrants,” this year’s crop of Republican politicians will not be satisfied because they do not want to “solve the problem” of undocumented immigration; they want to keep the pot boiling so that they can still win points by their anti-immigrant zeal. The same can be said of Republican efforts to get President Obama’s health care reform declared unconstitutional.

Photo: Protestors confront Ariz. State Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, author of Arizona’s immigration bill SB1070, outside the Federal Courthouse in Phoenix. The Supreme Court agreed Dec. 12 to rule on Arizona’s controversial law. (Matt York/AP)



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.