Many Arizona legislators, activists and Latinos had expected the justices to allow officers to check papers. What they did not expect was for the court to place so many limits on police.
In the place where it all began, there was confusion and consternation Monday at the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision to uphold the most controversial portion of Arizona’s contentious immigration law, the part that requires law-enforcement officers to check the immigration status of people suspected of being in the country illegally.
Many legislators, activists and Latinos in the state had expected that part of the ruling to go the way it did. What they did not expect was for the court to place so many limits on police.
Under the ruling, police cannot detain illegal immigrants merely because of their status or prohibit them from seeking employment in Arizona, drawing clear lines between state and federal jurisdiction over immigration enforcement.
So there was also surprise and a sense of victory from all sides over the mixed decision, as well as questions about happens next.
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During a news conference, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, who fervently championed the law, chose to overlook the rulings against the law, saying “the heart” of the law, known as SB 1070, “has proved to be constitutional” and the state’s authority to “protect its people” from the dangers of illegal immigration had been upheld.
Democratic state Sen. Steve Gallardo, meanwhile, said the Supreme Court had sent “a loud message,” telling the governor she had gone too far in trying to expand her reach into “an issue that is clearly a federal issue.”
Lost in the middle were people like Honorio Hernandez, 35, and Jorge Martinez, 49. They are Mexican immigrants living in Arizona under different circumstances — Hernandez is a legal resident, Martinez is not — but both are troubled by the prospect of facing the police.
“Will they be able to stop me because I look the way I look?” Hernandez asked as he stepped outside a market that specializes in Hispanic goods.
“Before, I could get stopped and get a ticket for driving without a license,” said Martinez, nearby. “Now, they’re going to ask for my papers. Then, what?”
In affirming federal jurisdiction over immigration, the Supreme Court ruled it is up to federal — not state — authorities to arrest immigrants if being in the country illegally is their only offense.
So workers at Puente, an advocacy group, spent hours urging supporters to join a protest outside federal immigration offices. It was a marked shift for an organization whose main target had been Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has waged a relentless crackdown against Latinos.
Department of Homeland Security workers in Arizona were being reminded to focus on serious criminals and repeat offenders when pursuing deportation, part of a push by the Obama administration to ease the impact of tough enforcement in immigrant communities.
The administration also revoked an agreement allowing certain Arizona law-enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration laws.
Meanwhile, throughout the state, in an effort to avoid claims of racial profiling, police officers and sheriff deputies are being trained — through an updated version of a video made in 2010, when Brewer signed SB 1070 into law — to understand what are considered reasonable signs that a person might be an illegal immigrant.
While the Supreme Court unanimously sustained the law’s centerpiece, the one critics have called its “show me your papers” provision, the justices parted ways on three other provisions, with the majority rejecting three provisions that would have subjected illegal immigrants to criminal penalties for activities such as seeking work.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said, “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.”
In a signal that even the surviving provision could be revisited, Kennedy also wrote the ruling did not foreclose other “constitutional challenges to the law as interpreted and applied after it goes into effect.”
In upholding the requirement that police ask to see people’s papers, the court emphasized that state law-enforcement officials already possessed that discretion. The law merely makes that inquiry mandatory if police have reason to suspect a person is an illegal immigrant.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined Kennedy’s majority opinion. Justice Elena Kagan disqualified herself, presumably because she had worked on it as the solicitor general.
Three justices dissented in part, each writing separately and only for himself. Justices Antonin Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas said they would have sustained all three of the blocked provisions. Justice Samuel Alito would have sustained two of them while overturning one that makes it a crime for immigrants to fail to register with the federal government.
The two other provisions blocked by the majority were one making it a crime for illegal immigrants to work or try to find work and another allowing police to arrest people without warrants if they have probable cause to believe they have done things that would make them deportable under federal law.
Scalia summarized his dissent from the bench, a rare move that indicated his deep disagreement. Rarer still, he criticized a policy that was not before the court: President Obama’s recent announcement that his administration would not deport many illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children.
Both Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney quickly responded to the ruling. Romney — traveling, by coincidence, in Arizona — said in a brief statement that states had the right and the duty to secure their borders.
Obama emphasized his concern that the remaining provision could lead to racial profiling, an issue that the court may yet consider.
The Obama administration had argued that federal immigration law trumped — or pre-empted, in legal jargon — the state’s efforts. A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked all four provisions of the law on those grounds.
Five other states — Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah — have enacted tough measures more or less patterned after the Arizona law.
Lower courts have stayed the implementation of parts of those laws, and they now will revisit those decisions.
Monday’s ruling is not expected to have any legal impact in Washington state, where a citizens group has attempted — and failed for six consecutive years — to collect enough signatures for a ballot measure that would restrict illegal immigration.
Drafted by the same legal group that wrote the Arizona law, this year’s Initiative 1206 among other things would prevent local governments from establishing ordinances to prohibit law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration authorities and block the state from issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.
Sponsors of the initiative, Respect Washington, will need to submit at least 241,153 signatures by July 6 to qualify the measure for the November ballot, but say they are far short of that.
Seattle and King County both have ordinances preventing law enforcement from inquiring about a person’s immigration status. In fact, Seattle was among about 40 cities and counties that filed a friend-of-the-court brief siding with the federal government.
A spokesman for Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna said he agrees with local law-enforcement officials who have told him that enforcing immigration law should not be the responsibility of local police.
The campaign for Democrat Jay Inslee had no comment.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Lornet Turnbull contributed
to this report.