The U.S. vs. Arizona: A Primer for the High Court’s Big Day on Immigration

Who gets to regulate the lives of immigrants? The Supreme Court will attempt to settle the debate. Today, both sides make their case before the High Court.

By Hatty Lee, Julianne Hing Apr 25, 2012

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Arizona’s trendsetting and controversial anti-immigrant law SB 1070 today. It’s the culmination of a legal battle for which both immigrant rights advocates and immigration restrictionists have been itching for two years, ever since Arizona became the first state in the nation to make it a crime to be an undocumented immigrant. Below, Hatty Lee’s infographics break down what’s at stake.

The Supreme Court will attempt to settle a debate raging across the country: When it comes to immigration enforcement, where does the federal government’s territory end and state power begin? Or, as SCOTUSblog‘s Lyle Denniston puts it: Who gets to regulate the lives of this country’s immigrants? Today’s proceedings are the final oral arguments of this session for Supreme Court justices. But it will surely not be the last word on this issue.

At the heart of the law is the concept of "enforcement through attrition," or as it’s been taken up by presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney, "self-deportation." The theory posits that states that criminalize every aspect of life for undocumented immigrants don’t need to actively kick out immigrants. Lawmakers can make life oppressive enough that immigrants will leave the state on their own. The concept was pushed by Kris Kobach, whose official title as Kansas Secretary of State has been eclipsed by his legislative engineering of SB 1070. When SB 1070 was signed into law two years ago, it became a showpiece for the movement, and a model for other states. 

Kobach, working with a right-wing network of anti-immigrant forces, has successfully supported five other states that have enacted SB 1070 copycat bills: Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah. The federal government has open lawsuits against Alabama, South Carolina and Utah.

The Obama administration has cracked down on enforcement-giddy states even as it has strengthened its own enforcement apparatus. Since stepping into office President Obama has deported record numbers of immigrants every year, for a total of more than 1 million deportations over his tenure. He’s been able to do this in large part through initiatives like 287(g) and Secure Communities, which interlace local law enforcement work with immigration enforcement. When states and localities attempted to distance themselves from these programs, the Obama administration announced that states’ cooperation with Secure Communities was mandatory

"It’s not like the federal government is being soft on immigration," Kevin Johnson, Dean of UC Davis School of Law said when the Supreme Court announced it would take up the case. Johnson added that the apparent tension doesn’t resolve the basic constitutional questions at play. "It’s different than allowing states and localities from coast to coast to have their own immigration enforcement force at work."

Still others see this case as a test of the nation’s basic values. 

"[T]his case poses more fundamental questions for everyone," Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office said in a statement. "Will we tolerate a police state that requires everyone to carry identification documents at all times? We must stop discriminatory laws that invite constant police intrusion, encourage racial profiling and compromise the American way of life."

–Julianne Hing

Graphic has been updated since original posting.