Arizona v. United States: A Simple Supreme Court Case with Major Ramifications

What would the US look like if each of the 50 states decided who they wanted to let in their borders? Or if state legislatures, motivated by racism and backed by profit-driven prison corporations, could enact laws that made living conditions for immigrants within their borders so onerous that immigrants fled in droves?

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will consider these questions when it hears arguments over the constitutionality of SB 1070 [pdf], the Arizona immigration law that seeks to force undocumented immigrants within the state to “self-deport” by requiring its police officers to arrest anyone who seems like they may be undocumented.

The legal issue in Arizona v. United States is simple: the Constitution assigns authority over foreign affairs, including immigration, to the federal government, and not to the states. Because the federal government has a comprehensive immigration regulation policy in place, federal immigration law preempts any state immigration laws that conflict with it.

The Arizona law plainly conflicts with federal immigration enforcement efforts, and is therefore—according to both the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent—unconstitutional.

The Court will hear arguments on four specific provisions of SB 1070. These provisions make it a crime in Arizona to be unlawfully present in the United States and seek work in the United States without authorization. The provisions also require state and local law enforcement to determine the immigration status of anyone whom they “reasonably believe” to be in the US unlawfully and authorize law enforcement to arrest anyone whom they believe to have committed a crime that makes them removable from the US without first obtaining a warrant.

The discretion this law gives to Arizona police is breathtaking, and many immigrants have already fled the state. Although the contested provisions were prevented from taking effect shortly after the law was passed, many other states have enacted similar laws aimed at terrorizing immigrant populations into fleeing.

Alabama’s experience with SB 56, an even more draconian version of SB 1070, illustrates the logical endpoints of these state laws. As thousands of immigrants have fled Alabama, crops rot in the fields for lack of workers to harvest them and parents have withdrawn their undocumented children from schools for fear that their children will be turned over to the police and deported.

Corporations that once brought much-needed jobs and money to the state are thinking twice about locating businesses there after a German executive from Mercedes-Benz, which has a major manufacturing operation in Alabama, was arrested when he could not produce his passport at a traffic stop. One report [pdf] estimates that SB 56 will cost the state up to 140,000 jobs and $10 billion in lost revenue, to say nothing of the effects on the people it targets.

Furthermore, laws like SB 1070 and SB 56 are designed to funnel even more immigrants into the immigration detention system, which holds around 34,000 immigrants every night. About half of these immigrants are detained in facilities run by private prison corporations like the Corrections Corporation of America, which was instrumental in drafting SB 1070.

While the arguments in front of the Supreme Court on Wednesday will have little to do with the noxious effects of SB 1070, the outcome of the case will have profound effects on the future of immigration policy.

If the Court holds that SB 1070 is preempted by federal law, Arizona and the other states that have enacted similar laws will likely look for other ways to target their immigrant populations. Indeed, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was adept at harassing and intimidating immigrants long before SB 1070 was passed, and other anti-immigrant sheriffs around the country have effectively criminalized being Latino in their counties.

But if the Court allows SB 1070 to stand, there will be little to stop individual states from effectively determining the racial composition of their populations. Immigrants will become even better targets for criminals, who will be free to target them with impunity if reporting crimes to the police results in deportation for crime victims.

The number of immigrants passing through detention facilities – which has hovered around a record-breaking 400,000 in each of the three years since Barack Obama became president – will likely increase, with private prison corporations benefiting at taxpayer expense. Even more families will be needlessly torn apart [pdf] as undocumented parents of US citizen children are deported.

Perhaps more importantly, it would force us to take a hard look at what we want our country to stand for. Have we learned that it should take more than mere “suspicion” to detain people largely based on their race, as we did with Japanese citizens during World War II? Will we experience another Great Migration, with immigrants leaving Arizona and similar states for ones where they can go to the grocery store without fear of deportation?

Or will enough Americans finally stand up to the bullies in Congress and state legislatures who use immigrants as scapegoats for everything from crime to economic turmoil and demand a comprehensive reform of our broken immigration system?

We should know the Court’s decision by the end of June. But its ramifications will be felt by immigrants and citizens alike for years to come. Let’s hope the Supreme Court gets this one right.

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