On Tuesday 26 June 2012, the US Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case of Arizona v. United States. The case concerned four provisions of a statute of Arizona state law known as Senate Bill 1070, enacted in 2010 with a view to addressing ongoing issues relating to the large number of illegal immigrants living in Arizona. Of the four provisions, three were struck down as infringing federal immigration enforcement, whilst section 2(B) (which requires police officers to check the immigration status of any individual that they have stopped or otherwise detained) was the only provision upheld.

The three provisions that were struck down were ruled to have been pre-emptive of federal immigration law. The offending sections of Senate Bill 1070 were as follows:

  • Section 3, which made being in the country illegally a state crime. The Court ruled that this provision was unenforceable as congress had left no room for states to regulate in this field; federal law which made the presence of an undocumented immigrant within the country illegal was already in place.
  • Section 5(c), which made it a state crime for an illegal immigrant to apply for work in the state. The Court ruled that not only was this pre-emptive, but that it also represented an obstacle to the federal regulatory system, which makes illegal the process of hiring an undocumented immigrant. This section was struck out on the basis that the state cannot add additional criminal penalties where the federal government has chosen not to.
  • Section 6, which authorised state police officers to hold, without a warrant, any person who is believed to have committed a deportable crime. This provision was struck out as pre-emptive of federal law in that the question of whether an immigrant is unlawfully residing in the United States or not is a decision for the federal government alone.

The decision to annul the above three provisions went through on a 5-3 majority. Of the three dissenting judgments, Justice Antonin Scalia cited the sovereignty of individual states as provided by the US Constitution as the rationale for refusing to strike down state-made law. Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the case due to her involvement as a solicitor general during the early stages of the litigation.

Many have welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision to strike out these provisions of state law on the basis that they are considered to encourage racial profiling. Whilst it remains legitimate for police officers to check a detained person’s immigration documentation in accordance with section 2(B) if there is a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that the person is the country illegally, the Court held that this provision does not allow suspected immigrants to be detained based solely on race, and that it is therefore consistent with federal law. The lifespan of section 2(B) will however depend on how it is interpreted and enforced by local police, and the Court made it clear that the legality of this provision could be revisited in the future.

The ruling of the Supreme Court in this case will have implications for state laws across the country, and in particular raises questions for the states of Georgia, Alabamaand South Carolina, all three of which have state laws in place restricting illegal immigration.  In response to the judgment, President Obama released a statement  which illustrated that he was pleased with the Court’s decision, suggesting that a ‘patchwork of state laws is not a solution to our broken immigration system – it’s part of the problem’. With the upcoming Presidential elections in November, this will be seen as an important issue for the President, as he seeks to secure crucial Hispanic votes.