The court, in Arizona v. United States, upheld a key provision that requires state and local police to check the immigration status of people they've stopped or detained if a "reasonable suspicion" exists that they're in the country illegally. Though this pillar of the law survived the federal government's challenge, the courts are likely to see it again once it is fully implemented. The justices, in a 5-3 vote, struck down three other provisions that created new state crimes targeting illegal immigrants, arguing that Arizona had usurped federal authority in the area of immigration enforcement.
The court battle pitted Arizona's Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the immigration bill into law two years ago, against President Obama, whose Justice Department sued the state to block it. Both Brewer and Obama claimed victory, suggesting just how difficult it will be to reach a consensus on how local police can approach, question and arrest the country's 11 million illegal immigrants. "The Supreme Court has really sent us a mixed message," said Arizona state Sen. Steve Gallardo, a Democrat and opponent of the bill.
Brewer said the "heart of the bill" was upheld, and state legislators around the country sounded emboldened, arguing that the ruling will not only help similar laws survive constitutional challenges but will lead to more laws when state legislatures reconvene in January. Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights group, said the court upheld the "heart of the problem." But activists held out hope that because the majority of the law was gutted, similar laws across the country — or those under consideration — will suffer a similar fate.
As other states targeting illegal immigration sort out the legal fallout from the ruling, the decision swiftly moved into the political realm as Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney weighed in. The president said he remained "concerned about the practical impact of the remaining provision" and that it could open the door for racial profiling. In fact, Obama's Department of Justice announced late Monday that it had set up a telephone hotline and e-mail address to field reports of civil right complaints when the law goes into effect, which will happen after a federal injunction is lifted. Romney said the ruling underscores how Obama has failed to develop a national immigration strategy that does not force states to fend for themselves: "This represents yet another broken promise by the president."