The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Monday to throw out parts of Arizona’s immigration law cannot be labeled a human rights victory. But it was a good decision because it reaffirmed that immigration laws are the purview of the federal government.
It would be inappropriate for states to devise their own immigration laws because of resulting confusion and possible extreme enactments. Federal immigration officers also receive the pertinent training, while state officers often do not.
After the court’s ruling, Arizona cannot criminally charge people who fail to carry identification documents; cannot criminally charge undocumented immigrants who seek work; and cannot permit police to arrest people without obtaining warrants when they suspect people are in the U.S. illegally.
The court did rule in favor of a significant part of the Arizona law, which requires state officers, when they detain someone, to verify the person’s immigration status with the federal government if “reasonable suspicion” exists that the person is in the U.S. illegally.
But the court acknowledged an opening for a future change of opinion. It said it would be inappropriate to assume the provision — deemed the “show me your papers” requirement — would conflict with federal law without an interpretation from the state courts, which are considering the matter.
We understand the court’s decision on the provision and we’ll wait to see if it results in racial profiling or long detainments of suspected illegal immigrants. If it does, lawsuits challenging that part of the law could result in another Supreme Court decision that knocks it down as unconstitutional.
The reality is that the court’s decision this week will have little impact on Mainers, where unauthorized immigrants comprise less than 1 percent of the state’s work force. Maine saw a bill similar to the Arizona one in 2011, but the sponsor withdrew it, signaling a lack of appetite for pushing the matter.
If illegal immigrants become a legislative topic when the Legislature convenes in January, lawmakers would do well to remember the lesson of this recent ruling: States cannot subvert federal law.
Arizona can’t make it a crime when people fail to carry identification papers because it replicates federal statutory requirements. The state can’t make it a crime for illegal immigrants to seek work because the federal law already imposes penalties on employers.
Further, the state can’t arrest a person suspected of being an illegal immigrant without a warrant because it would give state officers greater authority to arrest aliens than Congress has given to trained federal immigration officers.
“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 Anthony Kennedy wrote in the opinion of Arizona et al v. United States.
He was supported by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito filed opinions agreeing and disagreeing in different parts. Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the decision.
The court wisely kept immigration law under the scope of the federal government. Hopefully the one portion that didn’t violate federal authority — the “show me your papers” requirement — won’t result in racial profiling. But if it does — and many people say it will — the matter should go back to court to determine its constitutionality.