Supreme Court open to challenges on adverse impacts on civil rights
WASHINGTON & SANTA FE, NM (By Julia Preston, NYT) June 27, 2012 — The Supreme Court’s mixed decision on Arizona’s tough immigration enforcement law has laid the ground for years of legal and political wrangling in many states over racial profiling and civil rights, making it likely the court will be asked to revisit immigration.
In its opinion on Monday, the court struck down three parts of the controversial law but let stand a core “show me your papers” provision, which requires the police to check the immigration status of anyone they stop if they suspect the person is an undocumented immigrant.
But the court also suggested it was open to new challenges based on any adverse impact the law might have on the civil rights of Arizona residents.
Legal groups opposed to Arizona’s law contend the police will not be able to decide whom to question without singling out Hispanics and foreign-looking people for special scrutiny. They said the court’s opinion, in a lawsuit brought by the Obama administration, clears the way for them to come forward with challenges based directly on claims the statute will lead to racial profiling of Latinos and immigrants.
Fearing that impact, Latinos turned out in street protests across the country after the law, known as S.B. 1070, was enacted in 2010, and they led a boycott of Arizona, together with civil rights and immigrant groups. But claims of discrimination were not squarely addressed in the administration’s case.
“The court has opened the door for us to proceed now with the rest of our constitutional claims,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles, which brought challenges against Arizona’s law and similar statutes in five other states. “This type of law is almost impossible to enforce in a racially neutral way, without leading to civil rights violations against people of color,” she said.
On the other side, supporters of Arizona’s statute said the Supreme Court’s decision would compel them to pursue a new line of legal attack, focusing on what they contend is overreaching by the Obama administration, which they believe the justices encouraged. In its opinion the court broadly endorsed the administration’s argument that immigration policy and enforcement are primarily the province of the federal government, not the states.
“The administration is relying on a claim they have discretion to enforce immigration law,” said Michael M. Hethmon, general counsel of the Immigration Reform Law Institute in Washington, a group that helped Arizona and many other states to write their own immigration enforcement laws. “And they are using that claim to really massively expand their direct power.”
Mr. Hethmon’s institute is the legal branch of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, one of the nation’s most influential groups seeking reduced immigration.
Five other states have enacted laws that are some variation of Arizona’s: Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah. Civil rights groups have challenged those laws, and federal courts have suspended some or all of their provisions.
The Obama administration, in its case against Arizona — the first challenge to rise to the Supreme Court — relied almost exclusively on the argument the state law was invalid because it was in conflict with federal policy.
Before the administration filed its suit in 2010, civil rights organizations — including Ms. Hincapié’s center; the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, known as Maldef; and the American Civil Liberties Union — brought a separate lawsuit against S.B. 1070. That case, on behalf of labor unions, business groups, churches and immigrant organizations, claims the Arizona law “will subject many persons of color,” including Americans and legal immigrants, “to racial profiling and to unlawful interrogations, searches, seizures and arrests.”
The federal court put that lawsuit in abeyance while the Obama administration’s case moved forward. But after the Supreme Court’s decision, Ms. Hincapié said, the civil rights case can advance again.
The Supreme Court decision heightened attention on Alabama, where lawmakers last year passed an immigration law tougher than Arizona’s. While authorizing the police to check immigration status, the law also restricted business contracts and transactions with undocumented immigrants , and required public schools to check the status of students.
This year, the Alabama Legislature added provisions to make the law even more strict. Based on challenges from rights groups, federal courts suspended many provisions but allowed the “show me your papers” section to stand, making Alabama the only state where such a law has gone into effect.
Alabama officials and lawmakers said they were both heartened and worried by the court’s decision.
“The Supreme Court came down solidly committed to both sides, not solidly for either side,” said State Senator Scott Beason, a Republican who was a leading sponsor of the immigration bill. “I was hoping for a more definitive set of guidelines,” he said.
Rights organizations, including the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, brought two lawsuits against Alabama, both including extensive civil rights claims. They won one round, in which a federal court found the law unfairly prevented undocumented immigrants from obtaining license plates for mobile homes.
Alabama officials said they were studying the Supreme Court decision to decipher its impact on the state law.
“The people of Alabama want a strong anti-illegal-immigration law,” said Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican. “I will keep my commitment to uphold and enforce Alabama’s law.”
Mr. Hethmon, of the Immigration Reform Law Institute, said the group was preparing “creative legal strategies” to directly contest the Obama administration’s view it can use its federal authority to exercise wide prosecutorial discretion in setting deportation policy. The administration has said it will focus on removing undocumented immigrants who are criminals, while sparing others with no criminal records.
Mr. Hethmon said he would also be advising states on how to devise policing statutes similar to Arizona’s so they will be fully consistent with the Supreme Court’s guidance.
Civil rights lawyers said they will not give up on trying to stop the policing provision of S.B. 1070, which the Supreme Court upheld, from taking effect. They contend the court’s opinion pointed to new limits it wanted to impose on the law.
“We feel strongly this law should not be implemented,” said Thomas A. Saenz, general counsel of Maldef. “The irreparable harms are just too severe.”