Not all states with immigration laws will backpedal after Supreme Court ruling

States with tough immigration laws – like the one the Supreme Court mostly invalidated from Arizona – are assessing adjustments they may need to make. Not all foresee changes.

Ross D. Franklin/AP
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer leaves a news conference responding to the United States Supreme Court decision regarding Arizona's controversial immigration law, SB1070, at the Arizona Capitol Monday, June 25, in Phoenix.
David Sanders/Arizona Daily Star/AP
Tucson, Ariz., mayor Jonathan Rothschild, left, listens to Tucson Chief of Police Roberto Villaseñor during a news conference on Monday, June 25, at City Hall following the US Supreme Court's ruling on Arizona SB-1070.

The US Supreme Court’s immigration ruling – telling states, in effect, to butt out of immigration control, which is a federal responsibility – reverberated across the country on Monday and struck, in particular, a handful of states that had followed Arizona in approving tough laws targeting illegal immigrants.

In Alabama, Georgia, Utah, Indiana, Tennessee, and, of course, Arizona, lawmakers and legal analysts are holding up their state laws to the court decision to see what adjustments might need to be made now that the Supreme Court has spoken.


The US 11th Circuit Court of Appeals will now find it more difficult to uphold key parts of Alabama’s law, which many see as even tougher than the Arizona statute that the high court addressed this week.

The Supreme Court struck down any hint of states setting up their own immigration bureaucracies – such as penalties Arizona’s law had imposed upon people who were in the state illegally. That could affect aspects of Alabama's law, including requirements that public schools keep count of undocumented students. Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange acknowledged that Monday's ruling will affect the state’s law, “along with those of several other states.”


The same federal circuit court is taking a look at Georgia’s 2011 immigration omnibus law, but its fate is more uncertain than is the Alabama law's. Georgia's law allows police to check immigration status for people they have reason to believe are in the country illegally, and the Supreme Court on Monday permitted that sort of status check to go ahead despite its concerns about possible racial profiling, saying it might take another look at thet issue after it has a track record. Some analysts say the Georgia provision will be safe if police officers check the immigration status of everyone they detain. 


State lawmakers say Utah's more restrained immigration law – police there, for example, can ascertain someone's immigration status only during the investigation of serious crimes, and illegal immigrants are still allowed to drive – will likely survive in its entirety in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.


A provision in Indiana's immigration law that says illegal immigrants can be arrested by local police for making false statements in official paperwork, including welfare applications, is now suspect. The Supreme Court ruling expressly forbids Arizona from “criminalizing” illegal immigrants by creating new classes of crime and punishment, which Indiana seems to have done with its law.


In Tennessee – which has enacted a series of immigration laws, including ousting illegal immigrants from local and county welfare rolls, while strategically avoiding an Arizona-style omnibus law – Republican lawmakers suggest that the Supreme Court decision will have no impact at all. Moreover, unlike Alabama, Georgia, and Indiana, Tennessee does not allow street officers to make judgments about somebody’s immigration status.

“I would make the assertion that Tennessee has more enforceable illegal alien laws than any other state, and part of the reason for that is our tactical approach,” says Republican state lawmaker Joe Carr, who sponsored most of the anti-illegal immigration bills. “We passed laws in smaller chunks instead of doing it in one big bill, which tends to light a fire under opponents.” 


In Arizona, whose 2010 law was the focus of the Supreme Court's decision, Gov. Jan Brewer (R) said she expects police officers in the state to begin asking people they have reason to believe are in the US illegally for proof that they are legal residents. Indeed, Governor Brewer, who has been in a political stare-down with the Obama White House over illegal immigration's impact on Arizona’s economy and crime rate, said the Supreme Court upheld “the heart” of the state law – that is, the ability of police officers on the streets to use immigration-related discretion.

The high court did leave that question unanswered. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the five majority justices, suggested that, while concerns about racial profiling may be legitimate, the law needs a track record to determine whether it actually does unfairly target Hispanics and other minorities. 

The court ruling follows President Obama's June 15 announcement of a new immigration discretion program that may allow as many as 800,000 young undocumented residents to remain – and work – in the US. Many political experts say the 10 million Hispanics registered to vote could decide the November presidential election, given that many of them live in battleground states such as Colorado, Virginia, and Florida.

States have collectively enacted hundreds of laws dealing with illegal immigration, mostly out of frustration with perceived federal ineffectiveness on immigration control. Many such state laws are symbolic, intended to provoke illegal immigrants into returning to their home countries. Some legal scholars are concerned that the laws will also erode the constitutional rights of legal residents and citizens of Hispanic descent. 

The focus in Arizona now falls on state-deputized police, who are charged with carrying out the law in a way that does not overstep the bounds of the Constitution. 

“It's uncharted territory," Tony Estrada, sheriff of Arizona’s Santa Cruz County, told Fox News. "It's going to be challenging. It's a complicated issue, and it's not going to be solved by this particular decision."

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