The court unanimously sustained the law’s centerpiece, the one critics have called its “show me your papers” provision. It requires state law enforcement officials to determine the immigration status of anyone they stop or arrest if there is reason to suspect that the individual might be an illegal immigrant.
The justices parted ways on three other provisions. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for five members of the court, said the federal government’s broad powers in setting immigration policy meant that other parts of the state law could not be enforced.
“The national government has significant power to regulate immigration,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “With power comes responsibility, and the sound exercise of national power over immigration depends on the nation’s meeting its responsibility to base its laws on a political will informed by searching, thoughtful, rational civic discourse.”
“Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration while that process continues, but the state may not pursue policies that undermine federal law,” Justice Kennedy added.
The decision was a partial victory for the Obama administration, which had sued to block several parts of the law.
In a statement released later on Monday, President Obama said that he was “pleased” with the Court’s decision to strike down some aspects of the law, but he voiced his concern about the remaining provision.
“I agree with the Court that individuals cannot be detained solely to verify their immigration status. No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like,” Mr. Obama said. “Going forward, we must ensure that Arizona law enforcement officials do not enforce this law in a manner that undermines the civil rights of Americans.”
Monday’s ruling was a partial rebuke for state officials who had argued that they were entitled to supplement federal efforts to address illegal immigration.
The administration’s legal arguments were based on asserted conflicts between the state law and federal immigration laws and policies. The question for the justices, then, was whether federal immigration law trumped – pre-empted, in the legal jargon – the state efforts.
Last year, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, blocked four provisions of the law on those grounds.
The administration did not challenge the law based on equal protection principles. At the Supreme Court argument in the case in April, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., representing the federal government, acknowledged that his case was not based on racial or ethnic profiling.
Monday’s decision in Arizona v. United States, No. 11-182, did not foreclose further lawsuits based on that argument. “This opinion,” Justice Kennedy wrote, “does not foreclose other pre-emption and constitutional challenges to the law as interpreted and applied after it goes into effect.”
In sustaining one provision and blocking others, the decision amounted to a road map for permissible state efforts in this area. Several other states have enacted tough measures to stem illegal immigration, including ones patterned after the Arizona law, among them Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah.
Lower courts have stayed the implementation of parts of those laws, and they will now revisit those decisions to bring them in line with the principles announced on Monday.
Three justice dissented. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas said they would have sustained all three of the blocked provisions. Justice Samuel Alito Jr. would have sustained two of them.
The three provisions blocked by the majority were: making it a crime under state law for immigrants to fail to register under a federal law, making it a crime for illegal immigrants to work or to try find work, and allowing the police to arrest people without warrants if they have probable cause to believe that they have done things that would make them deportable under federal law.
Justice Alito said the first of those three provisions conflicted with federal law.
Justice Scalia read a lengthy dissent from the bench that addressed recent developments.
“After this case was argued and while it was under consideration,” he said, “the secretary of Homeland Security announced a program exempting from immigration enforcement some 1.4 million illegal immigrants.” This was a reference to the decision by the Obama administration this month to let younger immigrants — the administration estimates the number as approximately 800,000 — who came to the United States as children avoid deportation and receive working papers as long as they meet certain conditions.
“The president has said that the new program is ‘the right thing to do’ in light of Congress’s failure to pass the administration’s proposed revision of the immigration laws,” Justice Scalia went on. “Perhaps it is, though Arizona may not think so. But to say, as the court does, that Arizona contradicts federal law by enforcing applications of federal immigration law that the president declines to enforce boggles the mind.”
Justice Elena Kagan disqualified herself from the case, Arizona v. United States, No. 11-182, presumably because she had worked on it as President Obama’s solicitor general.
Robert Pear contributed reporting.