Courting the immigrant vote
In late April, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments over Arizona's controversial immigration law, a law that is echoed in at least five other states.
Justices announced last week they will consider the law, major parts of which were blocked by a federal court almost immediately after it was signed into law in April 2010.
Three months later, Arizona was dealt another blow when the 9th U.S. Circuit in San Francisco upheld the federal district court's ruling. Among the blocked provisions: requiring all immigrants to obtain or carry immigration registration papers; making it a state criminal offense for an illegal immigrant to seek work or hold a job; and allowing police to arrest suspected illegal immigrants without a warrant.
Similar laws in Alabama, South Carolina and Utah also are facing administration lawsuits. Private groups are suing over immigration measures adopted in Georgia and Indiana.
Then in October, the federal appeals court in Atlanta blocked parts of the Alabama law that forced public schools to check the immigration status of students and allowed police to file criminal charges against people who are unable to prove their citizenship.
These are important matters, but they are subordinate to the real issue that hinges on the argument that immigration is the province of the federal government, not the states.
Clearly the Constitution delineates certain things solely to the federal government, such as coining money, establishing a navy, and setting bankruptcy rules.
The Constitution never mentions immigration, but in the same clause giving Congress the power over bankruptcy, the nation's basic law also gives Congress power over naturalization. And the Supreme Court has ruled that the power to regulate naturalization includes the power to regulate immigration.
Unstated in their laws is the states' argument that they, too, enjoy such powers, a position spawned often for purely political reasons. And they complain that Washington doesn't do enough to lift the burden illegal immigration places on states.
Of course, just as we couldn't function with a patchwork of bankruptcy rules, it follows we can't function with a patchwork of immigration rules cobbled together by the states and at odds with federal law.
Immigration likely will be one of the hot-button issues of the presidential campaign, linked as it is to the economy and jobs. Justices will hear arguments in late April, before either major party holds its nominating convention. A decision likely will come during the summer, well in advance of the election.
Neither party has been particularly forthright on this issue, with Democrats doing everything except pressing the case for reform and Republicans largely backing moves by states such as Arizona. The argument is the states have to do something, because the federal government isn't, record deportations by the Obama administration notwithstanding.
How the court might rule is anyone's guess, precedent not being a particularly strong guide to the thinking of certain justices.
What we do know is that the court, with the decision to take on immigration, now will decide three politically charged cases -- health care reform and Texas redistricting being the others -- as the country is in the throes of a contentious battle for the White House.
For better, but probably for worse, that means the Supreme Court will be a major player in deciding who is inaugurated Jan. 20, 2013.