While both sides claim victory, the reality of yesterday's Supreme Court ruling is this: Immigration is a federal issue, but states can cooperate with the feds in law enforcement so long as they do not violate peoples' rights on in the process.
The case is especially interesting because it is an appeal of a preliminary injunction. Arizona passed the law with several provisions. The Obama Administration sued before the law went into effect, saying that the court should prevent (enjoin) the law from being implemented because it was "pre-empted" by federal law. In other words, states cannot pass laws that regulate an area reserved for the federal government.
The federal district court enjoined four provisions from going into effect. Arizona appealed. The Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's ruling. Arizona appealed to the Supreme Court.
To keep the injunction in place, the Administration had to show that (1) it would win on the merits (meaning the law really was pre-empted by federal law) and (2) irreparable harm would result from the law going into effect. This is a very high standard.
But the Administration met this standard on three of the four provisions. A majority of the Court (5 -3, with Justice Kagan not participating) said that the following provisions were pre-empted:
- Requirement to carry federal immigration "registration" papers
- Warrantless arrests of people believed to have violated a federal law
- Criminal penalties for working or soliciting work if not authorized to work under federal law.
The only provision that was upheld (unanimously) was the one allowing state police to check a person's immigration status in connection with an arrest or detention.
However, the Court signaled that this provision could be found lacking on the merits if it is not implemented correctly. In other words, if in fact the state does not implement the law in a non-discriminatory manner, it could be found to violate Equal Protection or other Constitutional provisions.
No doubt this is only the first battle in a long war about this and other similar state immigration laws. As soon as the law is enforced, more lawsuits will be filed - and lawsuits by other parties are already pending.
While it is nice to know the majority of the Supreme Court agrees that immigration law should be federal, it is a bit disheartening to see the human and economic toll taken to arrive at this point. Most people involved in the current system understand that the law must be updated and modified in a reasonable manner - and that only Congress can do so.
The Supreme Court's message to Arizona may be mixed, but the message to Congress should be clear.