By Lauren Ratcliffe
Published June 26, 2012
Immigration policy is for the federal government to handle, not the states, according to a ruling handed down Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court over an Arizona law.
The ruling could have implications for a number of states, including South Carolina, which modeled its own immigration law after Arizona.
When the Supreme Court handed down its opinion on the hotly debated and fiercely political Arizona v. the United States case, the court made it clear that the federal government alone can make decisions about immigration law, and states are out-of-bounds to try to tackle it themselves.
In a 5-3 decision, the court upheld the most controversial provision of the law that allows law enforcement to ask for immigration papers from anyone stopped for any reason. Justice Elena Kagan did not hear arguments or participate in the decision because of prior involvement with the issue as solicitor general.
The court rejected three provisions of the Arizona law, ruling that it cannot be a state crime for undocumented people to accept work in the country; that it is not a state crime to be in the U.S. illegally; and that law enforcement cannot arrest people without a warrant because they are believed to have committed a deportable crime.
Those three provisions were already covered under federal law and the court ruled that the states cannot pre-empt the federal government.
Local impact still unknown
South Carolina’s own immigration law might be back in-play because of the ruling, although any implementation could still be a ways off.
In December, federal Judge Richard M. Gergel struck down portions of the state law that most resembled the Arizona statute. Gergel’s decision blocked South Carolina from requiring law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of anyone they stop and suspect to be in the country illegally.
Gergel also blocked provisions that made it a state crime to harbor or transport an illegal immigrant.
The case involving South Carolina’s law is pending in the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. When the case resumes, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson will ask the court to allow enforcement officials to check the immigration status of those they stop.
“The most important element of South Carolina’s law, the ability of law enforcement to verify a suspected illegal alien’s status upon an ‘authorized lawful detention,’ was found to be constitutional on its face,” Wilson said in a statement after the Supreme Court ruling.
Gov. Nikki Haley called the Supreme Court decision “good news for South Carolina law enforcement.”
“In South Carolina, we passed illegal immigration reform that told the rest of the country we’re a tolerant state but also a law-abiding state,” Haley said. “That’s what this has been about for us — the rule of law — nothing more, nothing less.
“Now, (law enforcement officials) can do their job and verify that those suspected of being here illegally are actually here legally,” she said. “But the ruling also underscores the need for leadership in Washington that finally addresses illegal immigration reform, and we will continue to fight for that kind of leadership.”
Debate not over
Opponents of the law feared the “show me your papers” portion of the law would lead to racial profiling. The court’s decision did not address those concerns.
“Arizona SB 1070’s racial profiling law goes against our American values of equality, opportunity, fairness and justice,” said Tammy Besherse of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center. “Today, the court has effectively allowed racial profiling and harassment of Arizonians who are suspected of being undocumented, while challenges to how the law is being implemented go forward in the courts.”
The American Immigration Lawyers Association called the ruling encouraging, but, too, remained apprehensive about the “show me your papers provision.”
“By allowing that section to remain, the court is condoning state interference in immigration enforcement,” said AILA President Laura Lichter. “Across the country, this patchwork of state laws is creating more confusion in an already chaotic immigration system and burdening communities with legal costs as these discriminatory laws are challenged in court.”
Reach Lauren Ratcliffe at 843-849-3119.