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Justices Strike Down Parts Of Ariz. Immigration Law


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

News junkies yesterday had one of those classic moments involving the Supreme Court. The High Court ruled on Arizona's immigration law.

INSKEEP: And there was a period of frantic uncertainty as reporters and analysts tried to figure out what the ruling meant. Now it is clear the Court has given a mixed verdict to Arizona's law, casting doubt on copycat laws in other states.

MONTAGNE: The Court struck down key sections of the law but upheld the most controversial provision, at least for now.

NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg begins our coverage.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The justices upheld the so called, Show Me Your Papers provision. It requires all state and local law enforcement officers, upon reasonable suspicion, to detain anyone stopped for any offense no matter how minor, until their immigration status can be checked.

But the Court had an important caveat. In allowing the law to go into effect, the justices said they were adopting a wait and see attitude. And if the law ends up being used to target ethnic minorities, or if people are detained for an unreasonably long time while the immigration check takes place; or if the state detains illegal immigrants whom the federal government does not want detained, well then, the court strongly suggested the law would not pass Constitutional muster.

Regardless of all those caveats, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer proclaimed the ruling a victory.

GOVERNOR JAN BREWER: We will move forward, instructing law enforcement to begin practicing what the United States Supreme Court has upheld.

TOTENBERG: Opponents of the law are not optimistic, noting that even people who are U.S. citizens could have a hard time when stopped for a minor traffic infraction.

Yale Law Professor Lucas Guttentag.

LUCAS GUTTENTAG: There's obviously no data base for United States citizens. And so, the targets of the arrest and detention are those who a police officer may think look or sound foreign, which necessarily leads to discrimination and profiling.

TOTENBERG: The provisions that the Court struck down outright made it a state crime for illegal immigrants to seek work in Arizona, or to fail to register under federal law. A third provision allowed state and local police to arrest anyone based solely on suspicion that the individual was in the country illegally. The Court said all of those provisions conflict with federal law.

Congress made a different judgment on these questions, the Court observed, and that judgment trumps state law. The Court noted, for instance, that Congress affirmatively decided not to do what Arizona did - make it a crime for an illegal immigrant to seek or perform work. Instead, Congress put the legal burden on the employer.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Court's decision was its apparent endorsement of wide discretion for executive branch decisions on immigration policy. The Obama administration has said it simply doesn't have the resources to deport everyone who's in the country illegally, and it set priorities. Most recently, the president announced the administration would stop deporting some immigrants brought here when they were children.

Writing for the Court majority yesterday, Justice Anthony Kennedy seemed to accept the president's power to adopt such priorities. Referring to the Arizona law, he said that that even when an immigration status check determines that someone is in the country illegally, it's up to federal officials to decide whether it makes sense to detain or deport that individual.

After all, observed Kennedy, there are human reasons not to deport children brought to the U.S. by parents, or illegal immigrants who have lived here a long time and served honorably in the military. And in assessing where to spend resources, he said, federal officials may reasonably conclude that an illegal immigrant who's struggling to support his family poses less danger than alien smugglers or aliens who are convicted felons.

Arizona may have understandable frustration over its problems with illegal immigration, the Court said, but the state may not pursue policies that undermine federal law.

Joining Kennedy in the majority were Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor. Justice Kagan was recused because of her involvement in the case prior to her appointment to the Court. Dissenting from some or all of the decision were Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito

Scalia blasted the majority, saying that if the original 13 colonies had known they had so little power to control immigration along their borders, they would never have joined the Union.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.

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