Court throws out Arizona sheriff's suit: Immigrant crime fears 'unduly speculative'

A ruling by a US appeals court cuts to a central problem for immigration critics like Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio as public thinking evolves on the best way to deal with otherwise law-abiding immigrants who are in the country illegally.

Ross D. Franklin/AP
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio answers a question at a news conference at Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Headquarters in Phoenix in 2013.

Unable to seize on any hard evidence that deferring deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants would produce a domestic crime wave, a US federal appeals court on Friday threw out a lawsuit brought by Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio, saying it lacked standing.

The US still awaits a more substantial ruling from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans on whether President Obama overreached in writing executive orders designed to allow millions of otherwise law-abiding immigrants with deep roots to remain legally in the US.

But Friday’s ruling in Washington, D.C., cuts to a central problem for immigration critics like Sheriff Arpaio as public thinking continues to evolve on the best way to deal with otherwise law-abiding immigrants who are in the US without papers.

At the very least, the court found, assertions that municipalities will see crime rise and prisons fill up because of Obama’s actions “fail to allege an injury that is traceable” to the President’s orders, as Judge Nina Pillard wrote. Judge Pillard added that Arpaio's allegations “rest on speculation beyond that permitted” by court precedents.

Hundreds of thousands of residents who were brought here illegally as children have already seen their deportation orders deferred, as they have been given Social Security numbers and work permission. Critics have been unable to tie that order to an increase in criminality, although there are lingering concerns that the change in US immigration protocol could spark an increase in illegal migration across America’s southern border.

Friday’s ruling from a three-judge panel in Washington, D.C., comes as the impact of illegal immigration has become a winning issue for a broad field of Republican presidential candidates. Some candidates have embraced anti-illegal immigration as a powerful political stump issue, especially given frontrunner Donald Trump’s commentary about Mexico sending its criminals to the US. It is also the party’s most vexing issue when it comes to national relevance, given the growing voting power of US Hispanics, many whom find such stereotyping offensive.

Friday’s ruling also comes amid a heated national debate over so-called “sanctuary cities” where local police don’t enforce immigration violations. The murder of Kathryn Steinle, who was shot to death on July 1 while strolling along San Francisco’s Embarcadero, intensified opposition to policies that go easy on undocumented immigrants. Her alleged killer is a Mexican national who was a repeat border offender and who had a long criminal record. That led the US House of Representatives to pass a bill that would constrict federal monies to cities that offer safe harbor for immigration scofflaws.

But despite fears among some Americans that undocumented immigrants have become an emboldened criminal class, a new Gallup poll released this week shows that four out of five Americans want undocumented immigrants to have a shot at legal status in the US. Meanwhile, only 31 percent of Republicans support a deportation-only policy.

Certainly, Arpaio and other critics of Obama’s immigration orders still may find legal traction.

One of the judges in Friday’s ruling criticized a “myopic and constrained notion of standing,” noting that linking illegal immigration to crime rates “may be no more attenuated than that connecting a potential twenty-centimeter rise in sea level with greenhouse gas emissions from new vehicles.”

And it’s far from clear how the 5th  Circuit will rule on the argument by 26 states, including Texas, that Obama has injured states in an extra-constitutional way by giving undocumented immigrants a chance at legal standing. If the 5th  Circuit rules against the Obama policies, the Supreme Court would likely have to make a final ruling.

Frustrated by the failure of Congress to deal with some 11 million undocumented immigrants, the majority of them who have lived in the US for over a decade, Obama in 2012 signed a deferred deportation order that helped those brought into the US illegally as children to remain here legally. Last year, Obama expanded that order to include the parents of lawful residents. That program, however, has been put on hold by a federal judge in Texas, awaiting the 5th Circuit's ruling.

Arpaio, for his part, has played an outsized role in the immigration debate.

He’s the chief law enforcement officer for one of the biggest counties in the US, situated in a border hot zone for illegal immigration. He has waged political battles against Obama, leading a failed search for proof that the President is not an American citizen. Arpaio also recently settled a lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice alleging that the Sheriff’s office illegally detained and discriminated against Hispanics.

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