Last Monday, the Supreme Court struck down three of the four challenged sections of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, S.B. 1070. As usual, the media covered the event as if it were nothing but a pivotal game in a partisan play-off series, and went back and forth on whether this was victory or defeat for the Obama administration.
Don’t be distracted or confused. If you read the decision, the outcome is pretty clear: It’s a victory for people who want to see immigrants (documented or undocumented) treated fairly. It’s a defeat for anybody who wants the police to hound Hispanics out of Arizona.
S. B. 1070 was passed by the Arizona legislature and signed by Governor Jan Brewer in April, 2010. The Obama administration challenged the law in court before it could take effect, and a federal injunction has prevented Arizona from enforcing it until the case was settled.
Well, now it’s settled. Three of the four challenged provisions were struck down immediately:
- Section 3 made it a state crime for a non-citizen to fail to carry documentation authorizing their presence in the country.
- Section 5C made it a state crime for an undocumented alien to seek or accept employment.
- Section 6 authorizes Arizona state police to arrest without a warrant any non-citizen who they have reason to believe has committed an offense that would make them deportable.
Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, with Chief Justice Roberts and three justices from the Court’s liberal wing (Breyer, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor) concurring. Justice Kagan recused herself because she was in the Obama administration when the case was being prepared, and so might appear to have a conflict of interest. (Recusal decisions are up to the justices themselves. Liberal justices take these decisions seriously. Conservatives like Thomas and Scalia do not, even when money is involved.)
The reason Governor Brewer claimed victory and some liberals complained of defeat was that the Court did not strike down the fourth provision, 2B, which Justice Kennedy summarized like this:
Section 2(B) of S. B. 1070 requires state officers to make a “reasonable attempt . . . to determine the immigration status” of any person they stop, detain, or arrest on some other legitimate basis if “reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien and is unlawfully present in the United States.” Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. §11–1051(B) (West 2012). The law also provides that “[a]ny person who is arrested shall have the person’s immigration status determined before the person is released.”
This section is why S.B. 1070 became known as the “papers please” law. It conjures up visions of police harassing anybody with brown skin or an accent, and locking them up until they can prove they’re in the country legally. (You always go swimming with your passport, don’t you?) Such behavior is certainly in line with the expressed purpose of the law, which is to pressure undocumented immigrants until they “self-deport”. And I’m projecting here, but I’d guess that many S.B. 1070 supporters will consider it a bonus if legal Hispanic immigrants leave the state too.
So why didn’t the Court strike 2B down? Justice Kennedy’s reasoning shouldn’t give any comfort to the people who want to harass Mexicans. It all hangs on the timing of the case and on that phrase “reasonable attempt”.
The administration sued before the law went into effect, before Arizona police came up with enforcement guidelines, and before the state courts had a chance to rule on whether those guidelines follow the state constitution. Kennedy doesn’t want to assume that those people won’t do their jobs properly.
At this stage, without the benefit of a definitive interpretation from the state courts, it would be inappropriate to assume §2(B) will be construed in a way that creates a conflict with federal law.
Justice Kennedy could imagine state courts toning 2B’s interpretation down to something like this: As long as we’re holding you for something else already, we might as well check with ICE to see if you’re in the country legally, and if not, see what they want us to do with you.
However, Kennedy also envisioned an interpretation where police would hold brown-skinned jaywalkers (rather than just ticketing them as usual) or extend the detention of other suspects while waiting for immigration information, which (since the rest of the ruling established that immigration is federal territory) is none of their business anyway. Kennedy left little doubt that this would be seen as an unreasonable attempt to determine a person’s immigration status.
So the Court didn’t endorse 2B, it just let Arizona off with a warning. If 2B comes back to the Court as a racial profiling case with actual victims, it will get struck down then.
If you doubt that reading of the Court’s decision, think about this: None of the liberal justices felt the need to write a dissenting opinion. That should tell you who won.