Arizona Immigration Law: States vs. Obama at US Supreme Court, Again

Article excerpt

The US Supreme Court is set to hear arguments Wednesday concerning the tough Arizona immigration law. Key question: Does the state statute usurp federal authority to set immigration policy?

For the second time in a month, the US Supreme Court will hear oral argument in a major election-year dispute that pits state officials against the Obama administration over the balance of power between states and the national government.

On April 25, the issue before the justices is whether Arizona exceeded its authority when it passed a tough immigration enforcement statute, Senate Bill 1070, designed to encourage illegal immigrants to pack up and leave. The Arizona strategy is called "attrition through enforcement."

The Arizona case comes roughly a month after 26 states argued at the high court that Congress had overstepped its authority in passing the president's health-care reform law.

As in the health-care case, the stakes in the immigration dispute extend well beyond fundamental questions about the scope of state and federal power. A high court decision in late June could boost or complicate political fortunes in a presidential election year.

Immigration is an important issue to many Latino voters, a significant and growing constituency within the US electorate. Polling shows President Obama with a substantial lead among Latinos over presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

But immigration is also a powerful issue among conservatives and many independents. Polls show that despite an Obama administration lawsuit to block Arizona's immigration enforcement law, Americans favor the state's tough provision 2 to 1.

As if that isn't enough drama, the same two lawyers who argued the health-care case are set to face off again in the Arizona dispute - Washington appellate lawyer Paul Clement and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli.

The question for the high court is whether Arizona and other states are entitled to pass state laws that mirror specific provisions in federal immigration statutes and strictly enforce those provisions even when the Obama administration has decided - as a matter of policy and budgetary constraint - not to enforce those same provisions.

"There is absolutely no conflict between these [Arizona] provisions and federal law because SB 1070 adopts the federal rule as its own," Mr. Clement writes in his brief on behalf of Arizona.

He adds: "Unless and until Congress expressly forecloses such efforts, Arizona has the inherent authority to add its own resources to the enforcement of federal laws."

Solicitor General Verrilli argues in his brief on behalf of the administration that the Constitution assigns matters of immigration and border enforcement exclusively to the national government. He adds that Congress gave the executive branch substantial discretion to decide how best to enforce the laws.

SB 1070 is an attempt by Arizona to impose state priorities in place of the president's national priorities, Verrilli says. Rather than attempting to arrest and deport all illegal immigrants, the Obama administration says it is focusing on violent criminals and those posing a potential national security threat.

"Arizona has adopted its own immigration policy, which focuses solely on maximum enforcement and pays no heed to the multifaceted judgments that the [federal immigration law] provides for the executive branch to make," Verrilli writes.

"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," he says.

Arizona's SB 1070 is best known for a provision that requires state and local law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of anyone detained in a traffic or other stop whenever authorities have reason to suspect the individual is in the United States illegally. …