In the end, it was a prosaic ruling confirming the U.S. federal government’s jurisdiction in matters of immigration that undid Arizona’s draconian crackdown on illegal immigrants. But since the crackdown had more than a whiff of police state to it, this unexpected decision from a right-leaning U.S. Supreme Court is very welcome and carries broader, and mostly positive, implications for America’s troubled relationship with the 12 million illegal immigrants inside its borders.
The Supreme Court’s ruling confirms that states can’t set up immigration schemes that intrude on federal jurisdiction. In practice, the ruling struck down legislation that would have allowed Arizona state and municipal police to arrest without warrant anyone that they suspected of being an illegal immigrant – a dangerously mean-spirited law that would have led without question to the racial profiling of Latinos. Police in Arizona will still be allowed to check the immigration status of people arrested for other reasons, but even that is now on the Supreme Court’s radar and will most likely face a similar fate once it works its way into the court system.
This is by no means the end of the debate, especially in an election year. There is much political capital to be won in the U.S. both in advocating a merciless zero-tolerance policy on illegal immigration and in taking a more nuanced position that seeks reform in a measured fashion. Monday’s ruling fits more in the latter camp. As such, it is a victory for President Barack Obama, who this month announced a new policy that will allow as many as 800,000 young illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S.; and it is a clear signal to Mitt Romney, Mr. Obama’s Republican opponent, that his support for rogue states that want to diverge from the Administration’s policies and wield a heavy hand, not to say police baton, has passed its best-before date.
What is needed now from both candidates are clearly stated policies on broad immigration reform and a vow to end piecemeal fixes – whether these come from the White House or from state legislatures – that are politically motivated. It is time for Congress to fulfill its responsibilities.