Texas, Others Watching Hearings on Immigration Law

Updated, 3:30 p.m.

Early reports coming from the U.S. Supreme Court’s hearing on Arizona’s immigration-enforcement law indicate that even the court’s more liberal justices appeared skeptical of the argument that the state of Arizona should not be allowed to question the immigration status of people detained by law enforcement.

The Associated Press reported that early on, the eight justices hearing the case “strongly suggested that they are ready to allow Arizona to enforce part of a controversial state law requiring police officers to check the immigration status of people they think are in the country illegally.”

“Liberal and conservative justices reacted skeptically to the Obama administration's argument that the state exceeded its authority when it made the records check, and another provision allowing suspected illegal immigrants to be arrested without a warrant, part of Arizona law aimed at driving illegal immigrants elsewhere,” the AP stated.

The court heard arguments on the provisions that were blocked by a federal district court after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070. They include a requirement that police officers attempt to determine the immigration status of a person detained if they suspect the person is in the country illegally; a provision that makes it a crime if an immigrant fails to carry proof of legal status; and a provision that makes it a crime for an unauthorized immigrant to work, apply for work or solicit work, which the Immigration Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, says includes “a gesture or a nod." The final provision debated allows officers to arrest immigrants without a warrant if probable cause that they have committed a deportable offense exists.

Lyle Denniston, who writes for the Supreme Court of the United States Blog, said that although some of the more liberal justices expressed concern over long-term detentions, their support for the Obama administration’s argument was lukewarm.

“The court’s three more liberal Justices — Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor — offered what appeared to be less than enthusiastic support for the federal government’s challenge, although they definitely were troubled that S.B. 1070 might, in practice, lead to long detentions of immigrants,” Denniston wrote.  “They wanted assurances on the point, and they were offered some by Arizona’s lawyer, Washington attorney Paul D. Clement.”

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan recused herself, presumably because of her former position as the U.S. solicitor general in President Obama’s administration. That means the remaining  justices could split evenly and fail to reach a majority decision. The policy center explains that if that happens, the district court’s ruling would stand and no opinion would be issued.

Today’s debate prompted Puente Movement, a migrant rights group in Arizona, to issue a statement blaming the Obama administration for its failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

“SB 1070 is unconstitutional, and we expect it to be struck down by the Supreme Court.  But SB 1070 is a symptom of a much larger problem, and it's one that has been made worse by President Obama's own immigration policies that use people like [Maricopa County] Sheriff Arpaio as 'force multipliers,'” organizer Carlos Garcia said in a statement.

“The spin around today's Supreme Court spectacle masks the fact that the Department of Homeland Security continues to advance programs that criminalize immigrants, and the Department of Justice has still failed in its duty to remedy civil rights violations it has merely described for three years.”

Meanwhile, the ACLU of Texas said today at a news conference that although Texans should be proud their Legislature didn’t pass any Arizona-style immigration laws during the 82nd Legislature, lawmakers would probably try again if any of the four provisions debated today are allowed to go in to effect.

Original story:

Two years after Arizona passed a controversial immigration-enforcement law that, among other things, makes it a state crime to be in the country illegally, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments today for and against the law. Several other states, including Texas, that have passed — or have attempted to pass — similar legislation are certain to keep a close eye on the proceedings.

Analysts say that a decision will probably be rendered in June, which would leave ample time for lawmakers in Texas to mull over if or how they would attempt to write legislation aimed at curbing illegal immigration before the next legislative session convenes in January. Several dozen bills — including measures making it a state crime to knowingly hire an illegal immigrant (except those hired for domestic services) and broadening the immigration-enforcement authority of local law enforcement — were filed during the 2011 session. But none passed.

The court will hear arguments on the provisions that were blocked by a federal district court after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070. They include a requirement that police officers attempt to determine the immigration status of a person detained if they suspect the person is in the country illegally; a provision that makes it a crime if an immigrant fails to carry proof of legal status; and a provision that makes it a crime for an unauthorized immigrant to work, apply for work or solicit work, which the Immigration Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, says includes “a gesture or a nod, indicating that a person is willing to be employed.” The final provision that will be debated allows officers to arrest immigrants without a warrant if probable cause that they have committed a deportable offense exists. The court will ultimately be tasked with determining whether federal laws pre-empt those state ordinances.

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan will not hear the oral arguments because of her former position as the U.S. solicitor general in President Obama’s administration. That means the remaining eight justices could split evenly and fail to reach a majority decision. The lower courts could continue to debate similar laws, however, unless the Supreme Court agrees to hear another case and make a ruling on it.

If the court rules against Arizona’s law, a permanent injunction will probably be issued. The state of Arizona, however, may modify its law to comply with the court’s decision. If the court upholds the law and lifts the injunction, the policy center says, individuals could still file legal challenges to other parts of the law based on how they are implemented.

Some Texas lawmakers and stakeholders are not waiting on the court’s decision to make their views on the issue known. On the eve of oral arguments, several offices issued statements.

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, chairman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, issued a statement in support of the bill. He said the “Obama administration is wrong to sue the State of Arizona.”

“The Constitution gives Congress the authority and responsibility to establish a uniform immigration policy for the nation," he said. "However, if Congress does not pre-empt states from enacting their own immigration laws, they can assist with federal enforcement and pass laws that are not inconsistent with federal law. That’s precisely what Arizona has done."

Meanwhile, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus issued a statement admonishing the law, arguing that the bill opens up Latinos to racial profiling.

“Since its passage, SB1070 has legalized profiling of Latinos, prevented local police from doing their jobs by turning them into immigration agents, and codified harassment of families and communities,” said U.S. Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, D-San Antonio, the caucus chairman.

He added that the law “does not represent the values on which our country was founded. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will seize the opportunity to restore justice for the well-being of all our communities by overturning SB1070.”

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