U.S. Supreme Court Hears Arizona v. United States

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Arizona v. United States today. This case concerns Arizona S.B. 1070, and in particular, the four parts that have had immigrants and many others in an uproar.

Most of the oral arguments today concerned the part of the law requiring state officials to check immigration status in some circumstances. Several justices said states were entitled to enact such provisions, which make mandatory inquiries to federal authorities from local police officers that are already commonplace.

Chief Justice Roberts said the state law merely requires that the federal government be informed of immigration violations and leaves enforcement decisions to it. “It seems to me that the federal government just doesn’t want to know who is here illegally or not,” he said.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer suggested that he would be prepared to uphold the provision if it were clear the process of checking immigration status would not result in “detention for a significantly longer time” than in the ordinary case.

The law also makes it a crime under state law for immigrants to fail to register under a federal law and for illegal immigrants to work or to try to find work. Federal law penalizes employers who hire illegal workers but does not punish employees for working.

Chief Justice Roberts indicated that the employment provision of the state law was vulnerable. “That does seem to expand beyond the federal government’s determination about the types of sanctions that should govern the employment relationship,” he said.

Mr. Verrilli urged the court to consider the Arizona law against the backdrop of the foreign policy considerations that arise from taking actions against citizens of other nations.

Toward the end of the argument, Justice Sotomayor asked Mr. Verrilli how immigration status was verified as a practical matter. “Today,” she said, reflecting on the matter, “if you use the names Sonia Sotomayor, they would probably figure out I was a citizen.”
Should the court uphold any part of the law, immigration groups are likely to challenge it based on an argument not before that court on Wednesday — that the law discriminates on the basis of race and ethnic background.

Indeed, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. made clear that the case, like last month’s arguments over President Obama’s health care law, was about the allocation of state and federal power.

“No part of your argument has to do with racial or ethnic profiling, does it?” the chief justice asked Mr. Verrilli, who agreed.

Mr. Clement, the attorney who represented the 26 states in the health care law case against the federal government, said the state was making an effort to address a crisis with a law that complemented federal immigration policy. “Arizona borrowed the federal standards as its own,” he said. Mr. Verrilli countered that Arizona’s approach was in conflict with the federal efforts. “The Constitution vests exclusive authority over immigration matters with the national government,” he said.

The two sides are so far apart on these provisions in the Arizona law that it appears a decision must be made one way or the other whether the law is constitutional. Regardless of the outcome of the case, it highlights the necessity for immigration reform in more meaningful ways. If Arizona has any of its provisions upheld, other states will follow, which will have serious consequences in many communities across the U.S. Already, many communities have felt the impact from laws in other states being passed that are similar to Arizona, as some communities have just disappeared as a consequence. We will keep you posted on what is to come in the immigration landscape once the U.S. Supreme Court has made a decision on this case.