Supreme Court Poised to Hear Arizona Immigration Law Arguments

Posted April 25, 2012 in Immigration by


United States Supreme Court building in Washin...The US Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear arguments in the immigration-law case that pits the state of Arizona against the US federal government. At issue are four key provisions in the state’s anti-immigration law, which a federal judge blocked from going into effect in 2010. Those provisions:

  • Require police who conduct traffic stops to carry out immigration status checks on people they suspect of being immigrants
  • Allow police to hold detainees until their immigration status is confirmed
  • Require immigrants to carry proof of their immigration status at all times and make it a crime if they fail to do so
  • Authorize police to arrest immigrants who are suspected of having committed a deportable crime


History of SB 1070

Arizona’s anti-immigration law, formally known as Senate Bill 1070 or Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, was signed into law in April 2010 and due to go into effect on July 29, 2010. At the time, about 460,000 illegal immigrants lived in the state of Arizona, which shares a 389-mile border with Mexico.

In drafting the law, Arizona lawmakers wrote that the law’s goal was “attrition [of illegal immigrants] through enforcement” and to “discourage and deter the unlawful entry and presence of aliens.” Since it was passed, the state has been the focus of protests and boycotts. It’s also believed that many Arizona residents who are immigrants have relocated to other states.

In the law’s defense, supporters claim it is an example of “concurrent enforcement,” meaning the state law is simply designed to enforce existing federal laws. The American Civil Liberties Union counters that argument, writing:

This is not about enforcing federal law, it is about creating new state laws and a new state system that requires local police and sheriffs to ask people they stop for their papers in a way that promotes racial profiling of Latinos and other presumed immigrants. Additionally, SB1070 criminalizes conduct that is not criminal under federal law, like working without employment authorization.

The law significantly adds to the responsibilities of police officers, who are not normally trained in immigration law enforcement. A number of Arizona police departments and individual police officers have also objected to the law.

“Police departments that have the job of preventing crime know very well that in order to accomplish these tasks, they must have the support of people who live and work in the communities they serve,” says David A. Harris, professor of law and associate dean for research at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. “Those people actually know what the problems are, who the bad guys are, and what is going on when the police are not there — in other words, the members of communities are really the only source for information and intelligence that police departments have.

 “In immigrant communities, building those kinds of partnerships is hard. There are language barriers and cultural differences. But to its great credit, American law enforcement has made the extra effort to make these relationships work. Police leaders know that, if they get sucked into enforcement of immigration law, those important relationships are in jeopardy.”


State of Arizona Hit With Lawsuits

Several lawsuits were filed against the state of Arizona soon after the bill was signed into law on April 23, 2010. The suits put forth a variety of legal theories, but each lawsuit sought to keep the law from going into effect. The US Department of Justice filed the highest profile of those lawsuits, arguing that only the federal government has the right to make immigration laws.

David A. Harris

In July 2010, US District Court Judge Susan Bolton held hearings on several of the lawsuits, including United States of America v. Arizona. Days later she issued a preliminary injunction preventing the four key provisions from going into effect. Meanwhile, state and local police could enforce other less controversial parts of the law.

The state of Arizona appealed Bolton’s ruling to the US Appeals Court for the Ninth Circuit, which hears federal appeals cases in a number of states, including Arizona. A panel of three judges heard arguments in the case in November 2010, but before they could rule, Arizona filed a countersuit against the US government. In its suit, the state claimed the federal government failed to secure the US-Mexico border.

In April 2011, the three-judge panel upheld Bolton’s initial ruling. The state of Arizona decided to appeal its case directly to the US Supreme Court. And on Wednesday, the US Supreme Court justices—minus Justice Elena Kagan—will consider the constitutionality of those blocked provisions, but not the entire law.

(It is believed that Kagan recused herself because of work she did while serving as US solicitor general in 2009-10, prior to being named to the Supreme Court.)


Both Sides to Argue Their Case

The federal government and state of Arizona have already submitted briefs to the court that argue in favor of their position. Other groups with an interest in the case will have also submitted written papers—known as amicus curiae or “friend of the court” briefs—containing facts in support of one side or the other.

When the Supreme Court justices enter the courtroom on Wednesday, they will have copies of these briefs as well as information documenting the case’s progression through the lower courts. Lawyers for each side with have the opportunity to explain their legal argument. They will also be questioned by the Supreme Court justices.

On Friday, justices will meet privately to cast their votes in favor of either the federal government or the state of Arizona. Two justices—one representing the majority opinion and one representing the minority opinion—will then take responsibility for writing up each side’s opinion. The Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling in June.

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