The U.S. Supreme Court will uphold a provision in Arizona’s tough and first immigration law that tells police to check whether people they stop for some other reason are in this country legally.
However, several justices also suggested they were troubled by parts of the law that would make it a state crime for illegal immigrants to seek work or not to carry immigration documents.
The hourlong oral arguments Wednesday pointed toward a possible split decision: a partial victory for Arizona that would revive its first-in-the-nation state crackdown on illegal immigrants but weaken the impact of its law.
The Obama administration won lower court rulings that blocked Arizona’s law on the grounds that it conflicted with the federal government’s control over immigration. But U.S. Solicitor Gen. Donald B. Verrilli Jr. ran into steadily skeptical questions from the justices, both liberal and conservative.
Chief JusticeJohn G. Roberts Jr.said he saw no problem with Arizona’s police checking with federal immigration officials once someone has been lawfully stopped. “What could possibly be wrong if Arizona arrests someone, let’s say for drunk driving … and the arresting officer says, ‘I’m going to call the federal agency and find out if this person is here illegally’?”
Verrilli repeatedly said the federal power over immigration was “exclusive” and did not allow any role for the states and police.
But the chief justice said the decision on whether to detain or deport an illegal immigrant still would rest with the federal government, not Arizona. “It’s still your decision,” he told Verrilli. “It seems to me the federal government just doesn’t want to know who is here illegally.”
The court’s conservatives weren’t the only ones who seemed untroubled by the police provision.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was appointed by President Obama, asked several questions about it, but seemed satisfied that it need not have harsh consequences.
“What happens in this call to the federal government? ‘Yes, he’s an illegal alien. No, we don’t want to detain him’?” she asked, voicing the words of a hypothetical federal agent.
“The answer is nothing. The individual at this point is released,” said Paul D. Clement, Arizona’s attorney.