Supreme Court ruling on immigration law comes with as many caveats as clarity

When the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling on Arizona’s immigration law, all sides claimed victory to various degrees. That is the first sign that there is a healthy dose of nuance in the court’s decision. In fact, there are several.

The court’s majority upheld the central provision of Arizona’s 2010 measure designed to crack down on illegal immigrants in the state – that which requires law-enforcement officers to determine the immigration status of those they suspect of being in the country illegally. But it did so while all but inviting future challenges to the law, once it is implemented. Concerns about what data law enforcement will use to establish that suspicion – namely, ethnicity – prompted the Obama administration’s initial challenge to the law, and those concerns remain.

In his majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy left that question noticeably open, saying that decision does not close the door on “constitutional challenges to the law as interpreted and applied after it goes into effect.” Those will almost certainly come – unless Arizona officials take the alternate approach of not enforcing the practice. The remainder of the court’s decision could be interpreted to encourage that path.

While upholding the “show me your papers” provision, the court struck down three other components of Arizona’s law: one making it a crime to work or seek employment in the state, one allowing law enforcement to arrest – without warrants – those suspected of being in the state illegally, and one requiring immigrants to carry immigration registration papers. It is this last that could serve to fuel challenges to the one provision the court upheld: By allowing law enforcement to ask for immigration documentation, but not requiring people to carry such documentation, the court has set up a conundrum that can potentially lead to just the sort of ethnic profiling critics fret will occur. It can also lead to the “prolonged” detentions that the court warned against in its ruling. It presents a fine line for Arizona to walk.

While Arizona has now been granted permission to implement immigration status-checks – a decision for which the law’s proponents are claiming victory – it has also been issued a stern rebuke for its efforts to supersede federal immigration law by criminalizing behavior that the federal government has not. That is considered a victory by the Obama administration, which challenged Arizona’s authority to impose such sanctions.

Both sides are right, it seems, but the Obama administration might someday be more right, depending on how the remaining provision of the law is enforced.

What remains equally unsettled is the larger issue of immigration policy. As a federal issue that in turn affects states, there is great need for clarification and revision of the laws governing how this country treats those who seek to live here. Doing so in a piecemeal, state-by-state fashion is the wrong approach; providing consistency in the law as well as the enforcement should be the litmus of any such effort.

In striking down the draconian components of Arizona’s legislation, the Supreme Court set the stage for that consistency. In challenging the state to enforce its documentation provision without discrimination, the court has set a high bar for Arizona to prove the practice passes constitutional muster.