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Supreme Court Ruling Limits State Authority to Enforce Immigration Law
June 26, 2012
Asserting the U.S. government’s broad power to regulate immigration, the Supreme Court has struck down most of a controversial Arizona immigration enforcement statute, holding that it impermissibly undercut federal authority. The Court let stand a provision requiring state and local police to check the immigration status of individuals who are stopped, arrested or detained, but left the door open to future challenges if that provision is applied in a way that is discriminatory or otherwise conflicts with federal law.

The Court found that federal law entirely superseded two key provisions of the law, which would have made it a state crime to fail to carry immigration documents or to work without authorization. Also invalidated was a provision that would have allowed police to arrest an individual without a warrant if there was cause to believe that person had committed an offense rendering him or her removable from the United States. The Court found that this provision would frustrate the U.S. government’s ability to enforce the complex federal laws on removal.

The decision effectively limits the power of the states to enforce immigration law independently of the federal government. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, acknowledged that some states that “bear many of the consequences of unlawful immigration,” but admonished that they “may not pursue policies that undermine federal law.”

The Court’s decision was the second to address an Arizona immigration law since last year. In May 2011, the Supreme Court upheld the Legal Arizona Workers Act, a statute that allows the state to suspend the business licenses of employers who hire unauthorized workers, among other provisions. The Court found that this provision was permitted as a narrow exception to a federal law that otherwise preempts states from penalizing employers who engage in unauthorized employment.