Supreme Court ruling on Arizona law must lead to 'civil discourse' on illegal immigration

The Supreme Court ruling on Arizona law SB 1070 will let states help enforce federal immigration law through police checks on immigration status. This should create more federal-state cooperation in battling illegal immigration, especially in states hit hardest by such massive lawlessness.

Matt York/AP Photo
Community members Leticia Ramirez, left, and Jovana Renteria watch the United States Supreme Court decision regarding Arizona's controversial immigration law, SB1070, come down at the Puente Movement offices June 25 in Phoenix.

A Supreme Court ruling on Arizona law SB 1070 puts a tight fence around a state’s ability to deal with illegal immigrants. But while asserting a preeminent federal role, the justices nonetheless gave some strong advice: The nation needs a “searching, thoughtful rational civic discourse” about immigration.

Indeed serious political discourse on this topic has been lacking even as many states experience an unfair and costly burden because of lax federal enforcement.

Now with this court decision, Washington must work more closely with the states and carefully tailor a joint responsibility for each state’s particular needs on immigration.

The court upholds the key part of Arizona law SB 1070 – one that mandates police check the immigration status of someone on suspicion of being in the United States illegally if the person is stopped for another reason.

If all states can now pass such a provision, that will help create more transparency about the extent of illegal immigration – as well as reveal how often the federal government simply looks the other way in upholding the immigration laws.

The nation needs more openness and accountability about this federal discretion. That will improve the “civic discourse” and possibly lead to a consensus on how to deal with the 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in the US.

The justices left open the possibility that they may restrict a state’s ability to detain someone over immigration status if such detentions are too long. Such an approach reflects the court’s view that states must defer to the power of Congress in setting national immigration policy.

Such deference is difficult, however, for those states hit hard by the high costs of illegal immigrants. The court noted, for example, that unauthorized immigrants make up 8.9 percent of the population of Arizona’s Maricopa County (which includes Phoenix) while being responsible for 21.8 percent of felonies in the county.

Yet the court decided that states cannot impose special actions against either illegal immigrants or employers who hire them.

The uneven impact of illegal migrants across the US requires more federal attention. States cannot be left unprotected in the face of such massive lawbreaking that challenges a state’s ability to govern. Road signs in parts of Arizona, for example, now read: “DANGER – PUBLIC WARNING – TRAVEL NOT RECOMMENDED / Active Drug and Human Smuggling Area.”

At least for the time being, the court will allow greater arrest authority for states on immigration – although deportation is left up to the federal government. With the legal lines more clearly drawn, Washington must expand enforcement while also welcoming states to join the national effort at defending the border and enforcing immigration laws.

Discourse, after all, is a two-way street.

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