Presidents rarely meddle with state legislation, but two years ago on the day Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1070, a controversial bill that enacted stringent immigration measures, President Obama criticized the law as “misguided” and as undermining “basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans.”
In particular, there were four provisions that rankled President Obama as well as immigration advocates: law enforcement officers would be allowed to stop and ask the immigration status of a person; officers would be authorized to arrest immigrants without a warrant when there is “probable cause” of a crime; it would be a crime for immigrants to not carry documentation; and illegal for undocumented immigrants to work in the United States.
Critics argued that Arizona’s controversial immigration law encouraged racial profiling and discrimination, giving local law enforcement officers the power of federal immigration agents. Anti-immigration groups, however, applauded the “attrition through enforcement” strategy, where aggressive laws would make life so difficult for unauthorized immigrants that they would choose to “self-deport” themselves.
So after the ink dried on SB 1070, Gov. Brewer backed her new law saying, “Arizona [has] been more than patient waiting for Washington to act. But decades of federal inaction and misguided policy have created a dangerous and unacceptable situation.”
A couple months later, the Department of Justice came right back at Arizona with a lawsuit that challenged SB 1070, arguing that the federal government solely has jurisdiction over foreign policy issues like immigration – and not the states.
“Arizona basically said, ‘No, you don’t. We’re going to do our own thing,’ which was this very controversial…immigration law where [law enforcement] can stop people and detain [undocumented immigrants],” said The Nation’s Ari Berman on MSNBC.
The Supreme Court is currently hearing the case, and a ruling is expected in the coming days. If the justices rule in favor of Arizona, court-watchers expect Latino voters to come out of the woodwork, which could possibly turn the tide favorably for President Obama.
“If the tough immigration rules are upheld, then Hispanics are going to be angry and will turn out at a larger rate,” Larry Sabato director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia told USA Today. “If it’s the reverse, it’s possible that the anti-immigration people will say, ‘Hey, we need to get somebody who is friendly to our point of view in the White House.’”
If the court upholds SB 1070, the Republican presidential nominee would potentially have ammunition against President Obama and his failed attempt at challenging the law. But the Supreme Court’s decision will not only impact the presidential election by galvanizing the Latino vote but also set a precedent for how individual states decide to tackle immigration.
Berman predicted on MSNBC, “[If] the Supreme Court favors Arizona, which I think there’s a very good chance they will, it’s going to open the door to a lot of other states passing these kinds of laws.”
So far today there are five other states that have passed similar laws like Arizona’s: Alabama, Utah, Georgia, South Carolina and Indiana. In 2011, when Alabama enacted its version of SB 1070, one particular provision required schools to verify the immigration status of new students. Subsequently, droves of Hispanic immigrants quietly packed up and moved out, and 7 percent of Hispanic children in the state – about 2,300 students – stopped showing up for classes.
Proponents of laws like SB 1070 argue that only extreme measures will curb immigration, but others warn that taking out undocumented workers from the economic equation could be disastrous. A 2011 study by the progressive think tank Center for American Progress says if all undocumented immigrants were to leave Arizona, total employment would fall by 17.2 percent; the state economy would shrink by $48.8 billion; and state tax revenues would decrease by 10.1 percent.
But so far the dialogue on whether the Arizona law pre-empts federal law leans in favor of Arizona. Chief Justice John Roberts said he doesn’t see the “papers please” provision – in which law enforcement would be able to request status documentation from immigrants – as encroaching on the federal government.
“It is not an effort to enforce federal law,” Roberts said. “It is an effort to let you know about violations of federal law. Whether or not to enforce them is still entirely up to [the federal government].”
On the other hand, Justice Sonia Sotomayor was more concerned about the consequences of what would happen after immigrants are asked to show their papers.
“Seems to me that the issue is not about whether you [try to identify the immigration status],” said Sotomayor, “but on how long you detain the individual…What I see as critical is the issue of how long and when is the officer going to exercise discretion to release the person?”
As the court readies for a decision, Gov. Brewer is preparing for good news. “The governor is optimistic that the heart of SB 1070 will be upheld and implemented,” said spokesperson Matthew Benson. “The governor thought this was an appropriate time to revisit the issue and make sure Arizona law enforcement is as prepared as possible for partial or full implementation of the law.”
If upheld, training materials and information will be handed out to Arizona’s law enforcement officers so they can immediately implement “papers please” and other measures that have been on hold pending the high court’s decision.