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Most of Arizona immigration law cannot stand, Supreme Court rules

But the Supreme Court upheld a provision requiring police to check the immigration status of people they have reason to suspect are illegal immigrants – the most controversial part of the Arizona immigration law.

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Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) praised the Supreme Court decision as a victory for the rule of law, and for “all Americans who believe in the inherent right and responsibility of states to defend their citizens.”

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She added: “After more than two years of legal challenges, the heart of SB 1070 can now be implemented in accordance with the US Constitution.”

The governor pledged to enforce the Arizona provision in an even-handed manner without resort to racial profiling or other unconstitutional methods. “Law enforcement will be held accountable should this statute be misused in a fashion that violates an individual’s civil rights,” she said.

The underlying legal challenge in the case, Arizona v. US (11-182), arose in 2010 shortly after state lawmakers passed the controversial measure. 

In challenging the Arizona law, government lawyers argued that the tough measure conflicted with kinder, gentler enforcement priorities of the Obama administration. The administration sought to target criminals and repeat offenders who pose a danger to the public rather than the vast majority of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the US.

Caught in a funnel of illegal immigration, human smuggling, and drug trafficking, Arizona officials adopted a different approach. SB 1070 sought “attrition through enforcement,” in an effort to encourage all illegal immigrants in the state to either go home, move to another state, or apply for legal status.

The administration sued the state to block implementation of the law.

Arizona defended SB 1070 as a legislative attempt by state officials to counteract what they viewed as lax federal enforcement of the nation’s borders and its immigration laws.

A federal judge in Phoenix agreed with the Obama administration, blocking four of the law’s provisions. A panel of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

On Monday, the high court upheld the decision blocking enforcement of three of the four provisions.

Among those provisions, one made it a state crime for an undocumented immigrant to work in Arizona. Another required all noncitizens to carry at all times a federal registration card and made it a violation of Arizona law to fail to produce the document on demand.

The third provision authorized Arizona law enforcement officials to arrest an immigrant without a warrant when they have probable cause to believe the immigrant committed a deportable offense.

The upheld provision is the law’s most controversial measure, requiring state and local law enforcement officials to check immigration status during any lawful stop when police have reason to suspect the individual is in the US without legal authorization.

The case was heard by eight of the high court’s nine justices. The newest justice, Elena Kagan, did not participate in the case because she worked on the issue as Obama’s solicitor general prior to her nomination to the high court.

Voting with Justice Kennedy in the majority were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor.

Dissents were filed by Justices Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito.

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