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Mixed reactions to Supreme Court's decision on SB 1070 immigration law

Protesters opposed to Arizona's immigration law SB 1070 in front of the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Protesters opposed to Arizona's Immigration Law SB 1070 gather in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down most of the provisions in SB 1070 Monday.

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to strike down three out of four sections of Arizona's controversial SB 1070 anti-illegal immigration measure has drawn mixed reactions.

Legal experts called the decision a partial victory for states wishing to craft their own immigration laws. Meanwhile, immigrant advocates are raising concerns about potential racial profiling, an issue the court did not address.

The justices decided by a 5-3 margin that Section 2(B) of SB 1070, which empowers local police to check the immigration status of people they stop, detain or arrest if there is "reasonable suspicion" the person is in the country illegally, does not conflict with federal law. It's the "show me your papers" provision. The court said the law needs to take effect before Arizona’s state courts can determine whether it is violating federal law, and the justices left the door open to further legal challenges.

The court struck down three other sections of the measure, saying they are preempted by federal law. These included a provision making it a state crime for unauthorized immigrants not to carry an alien registration document, one making it a state crime for those here illegally to work or apply for work, and another authorizing state and local police to arrest immigrants without a warrant where there is “probable cause” that the person committed a deportable offense.

The four contested provisions were blocked by a federal judge in Phoenix almost two years ago on the eve of SB 1070’s implementation, after the Obama administration challenged the law on grounds that it conflicted with federal statute. Immigrant advocates are cheering today’s ruling in part, but not the decision to let the hotly debated Section 2(B) stand.

Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Arizona's Maricopa County who became known as a proponent of the law, told KPCC's Larry Mantle that "It was a good ruling."

“Just as the nation is inching closer to a consensus on the need for solutions on immigration, the Supreme Court is dividing the nation,” read a statement from Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington, D.C. advocacy group. "The implementation of the racial profiling inherent in Section 2(B) will cause irreparable harm in Arizona.”

The case weighed by the justices did not involve the civil rights aspect of SB 1070; the court only ruled on whether the four provisions in question were preempted by federal law.

On today’s AirTalk, however, the civil rights component took center stage as several callers and guests pointed to the “reasonable suspicion” provision as encouraging racial profiling. Kris Kobach, Kansas secretary of state and the attorney who helped craft SB 1070, said there were built-in protections.

“The Arizona law says in four different places that officers cannot take into account a person’s race, ethnicity or national origin,” Kobach said. “The law is very clear on its face, it does not allow any consideration of race.”

Angelica Salas, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said that realistically speaking, profiling is bound to occur and already does.

“Unfortunately, what we have seen at the local level, in terms of rogue officers or in Arizona, the people who are being asked for their documents and being questioned about their nationality, the majority are Latino,” Salas said.

When Arizona’s governor signed SB 1070 into law two years ago, Terry Peters felt very encouraged. She and her family decided to travel from their home in Vista, 100 miles south of L.A., to Arizona, where they joined rallies in support of the new law.

When she heard the latest — the Supreme Court decision to maintain an important aspect of SB 1070 — Peters considered moving to Arizona.

"We would move in a heartbeat," Peters said.

Peters said Arizona should model state immigration reform efforts for California. But, she added that the latest ruling on SB 1070 isn’t likely to turn the tide here.

“Arizona passes a law supporting state enforcement of federal laws against immigration," Peters said, "and our state here collects taxes from us to pay for the education of the citizens of foreign countries. I mean, they could not be further separated.”

Immigration activists in California are, for the most part, not happy with the ruling. Representatives of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles say they’re concerned with the “show me your papers” provision because they wonder how police agencies can carry it out under the U.S. Constitution.

Democratic Congressman Xavier Becerra (D-LA) told KPCC that he is worried about how the law might affect someone like his father, who speaks English with an accent and “certainly looks like he might be ... from Latin America."

"What happens if he goes out and drives and forgets his driver’s license?” asked Becerra. “Do we have to go pick him up from an INS detention center?”

Will it have an effect locally? "This is a Supreme Court decision addressing a state law in Arizona," but political differences in California from Arizona make it unlikely to have an impact anytime soon, USC law professor Niels Frenzen, who specializes in immigration, told KPCC's OnCentral.

"I think [the law] would be profiling," said South L.A.'s Rodney O'Keith. "It’s like if they think you are an immigrant, [they have] the right to pull you over and search you. I don’t think it’s right."

“Most of us see absolutely no way to apply this law, to enforce this law, without racial profiling, without stopping you as an example because you may look different or foreign to someone,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told reporters during an impromptu news conference outside City Hall.

While the court didn’t address the profiling issue, there are pending legal challenges in the lower courts on civil rights grounds, so the legal battle over SB 1070 is far from over.

Meanwhile, today’s ruling could have the most immediate effect on those states that have already enacted laws similar to SB 1070. Five states have recently done so: Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Utah and Indiana.

The federal government has sued Alabama, South Carolina and Utah on the grounds that U.S. law preempts their laws; others have been sued by civil rights groups. In some cases, courts have withheld decisions pending the Supreme Court's ruling.

The SB 1070 decision also carries implications for other states considering similar laws.

"The court is basically giving a road map in terms of what would and would not be permissible," said John C. Eastman, a professor of law at Chapman University in Orange who has worked with legislators drafting state anti-illegal immigration bills. "If other states want to craft legislation within that road map, there is a lot the states will be able to do, and I suspect a good number of states will do so."

Today's ruling is "a limited victory of some sorts for states wanting to be involved in immigration enforcement," agreed Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the UC Davis School of Law. Johnson is one of a few legal observers who last week predicted the Supreme Court’s decision.

“I don’t think we have to fear in this state a law being passed like SB 1070," Johnson said. "I think the publicity that this court decision will get, including upholding Section 2(B), may remind people, including Californians, that it’s really time to do something about comprehensive immigration reform.”

But states that pass laws similar to Arizona “are going to have to pay careful attention to make sure they get it right," Johnson said. "The width of the avenue that the court has left open is relatively narrow. And I'm not sure how the decision is going to impact the Alabama law, which goes beyond the Arizona law in terms of education."

Alabama’s law, known as HB 56, contains a provision that would have schools check the immigration status of students. It has been temporarily blocked by a lower federal court.

SB1070 Decision

This story has been updated.