By Sid Salter
STARKVILLE – The Supreme Court’s split decision on the omnibus 2010 Arizona immigration legislation really satisfied no one and settled nothing in terms of delineating America’s future immigration policy.
It would seem that in great measure, that future will be one in which neither the federal nor state governments exert much effort to enforce existing federal laws and that the state’s will be constrained from taking steps to enforce the federal immigration laws that the feds now routinely ignore.
While upholding the right of law enforcement officers to determine immigration status during a lawful traffic stop, the nation’s high court rejected provisions of the Arizona law that would have created a state crime for not carrying immigration papers, created a state crime when an illegal immigrant seeks or engages in work, or that legalized a warrantless arrest for a person where there is probable cause to believe the person to have committed an offense that makes the person deportable.
While the 5-3 decision placed limits on state efforts to enforce what the court reiterated to be the federal responsibility for enforcement of existing immigration laws, the decision offered little guidance as to how states can push back against the political inertia that exists on the dual problems of protecting individual freedoms while at the same time securing the nation’s borders.
After strong efforts to adopt Arizona-style omnibus immigration legislation over the last few years, Mississippi lawmakers were prudent in awaiting the outcome of the Arizona case before enacting further immigration legislation. But Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has been a strong proponent of state laws to impede illegal immigration, and he has strong allies among a number of legislative leaders.
It’s notable that Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has hewed closer to the more pragmatic line on immigration legislation that marked former Gov. Haley Barbour’s position. Reeves embraced the position held by many in the private sector and in municipal and county governments that Arizona style immigration reforms would produce unintended consequences and saddle local taxpayers with the additional expense of enforcing what is inarguably federal law.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy observed, “The national government has significant power to regulate immigration. With power comes responsibility, and the sound exercise of national power over immigration depends on the nation’s meeting its responsibility to base its laws on a political will informed by searching, thoughtful, rational civic discourse. Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration while that process continues, but the state may not pursue policies that undermine federal law.”
Kennedy is right, of course, but then so is conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who in dissent raised the more fundamental issue that Arizona’s legislation is a reaction to the absolute inaction of the federal government – regardless the party in power – on enforcement of existing federal immigration law. The failure of the federal government to address illegal immigration has spurred states to take matters into their own hands.
Scalia referenced the fact that the Obama administration had announced a unilateral policy that would allow illegal immigrant youth and students to remain in the country and apply for work permits without facing deportation – and then pointed out the obvious contradiction between the court’s majority decision and the new Obama policy initiative.
“The president has said that the new program is ‘the right thing to do’ in light of Congress’s failure to pass the administration’s proposed revision of the immigration laws,” Justice Scalia said in his dissent from the majority opinion. “Perhaps it is, though Arizona may not think so. But to say, as the court does, that Arizona contradicts federal law by enforcing applications of federal immigration law that the president declines to enforce boggles the mind.”
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org