How Obama wins on Arizona immigration

The Supreme Court ruling on Arizona's tough immigration law was essentially a tie. But politically, Obama is the likely winner, as Latinos watch for evidence of racial profiling in the 'show me your papers' provision that the president fought.

John Raoux/AP
President Obama speaks at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) conference on June 22 in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

In the US Supreme Court, Arizona and the Obama administration fought to a draw over the state’s tough anti-illegal-immigration law.

But politically, President Obama looks to be the winner out of Monday’s ruling. Because his administration successfully challenged three of the law’s four parts, the president is vindicated for pushing back. And even though he lost on the law’s central provision – dubbed “show me your papers” – he can use that to energize Hispanic voters, many of whom are worried that it will result in racial profiling.

The reactions from both camps were telling. Mr. Obama went to the specifics of the case, warning about the potential for civil rights violations. The provision that was upheld requires police in Arizona to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being in the US illegally, a process that could result in racial profiling.

“No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like,” he said.

Mitt Romney’s initial response didn’t discuss the ruling on a law he once called a “model” for the nation. Instead, the former governor of Massachusetts repeated his previous criticism of Obama, accusing the president of failing to provide leadership on immigration reform. Then, a Romney press secretary spent seven minutes avoiding a discussion of the ruling. It wasn’t until later in the day that Mr. Romney began to react to the ruling itself, offering a mild criticism.

“I would have preferred to see the Supreme Court give more latitude to the states, not less,” Romney told campaign donors in Scottsdale, Ariz., according to NBC.

Romney also, for the first time, promised to take on immigration reform in his first year as president.

During the primaries, he struck a hard line on immigration, defending the Arizona law. At one point, he suggested that people in the US illegally should “self-deport.” He slammed Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) for approving in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants. He promised to veto the DREAM Act, legislation that offers a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants brought into the country as children.

Now that he has locked in the Republican presidential nomination, he has adopted a softer tone on immigration, as he tries to appeal to general election voters. In his remarks last week to Latino leaders, he focused on border security and legal immigration, promising more green cards to promote family unity and to retain those who get advanced degrees in the US.

But on the issue of illegal immigration, he is caught in a tough spot. He doesn’t want to alienate the conservatives he has fought so hard to win over – and risk low turnout in November.  

Obama, for his part, is also taking a political risk in fighting the Arizona law. He risks alienating swing voters who may be less than sympathetic on the issue of illegal immigration, particularly those feeling insecure about their jobs and perhaps fearful that undocumented immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans. A Fox News poll taken in April shows that independent voters favor the Arizona law overwhelmingly, 67 percent to 27 percent.  

But for now, the Obama campaign is working overtime to make sure the president maintains his strong lead against Romney among the fast-growing Hispanic population. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Obama beating Romney 68 percent to 30 percent among Latinos. Given Obama’s weakness among white voters, he is doubling down on his appeals to minorities – particularly in battleground states like Florida, Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia.

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