David G. Savage
Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON: The federal government, not states, holds responsibility for enforcing immigration laws, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, striking down three key parts of Arizona’s crackdown on illegal immigrants and jeopardizing similar laws in five other states.

The justices did clear the way for Arizona to begin enforcing another controversial part of its law, which directs police to check the immigration status of people they suspect are in the country illegally when they make lawful stops for other reasons. But the justices approved that provision only after attaching conditions that sharply limited its reach.

The invalidated provisions would have allowed Arizona authorities to arrest illegal immigrants for looking for work or for not carrying registration documents. Justices also voided a provision authorizing police to arrest immigrants for offenses that may warrant deportation.

Arizona vs. United States marked the most important effort in decades to draw a line between federal and state authority over illegal immigrants. An estimated 11 million people are living and working in this country without legal authorization. What to do about them has become an intensely contested political issue, with Republican leaders in Arizona and elsewhere calling for more aggressive enforcement of immigration laws.

Arguing that the federal government was doing too little, Arizona officials passed the state’s immigration law, SB 1070, two years ago. Backers argued that giving state authorities a legal basis to arrest and jail illegal immigrants would cause the immigrants to leave the state — even if federal agents did not want to deport them. Five other states — Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Indiana and Utah — passed similar measures. The Obama administration sued and won rulings in lower courts suspending the key provisions.

Monday’s high court decision allowed advocates on both sides to claim partial victory. But the 5-3 majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy and joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and three of the court’s liberals tilted heavily toward the federal government, leaving little role for the states. Overall, it was a significant victory for the Obama administration before a conservative court.

“Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration,” Kennedy wrote, “but the state may not pursue policies that undermine federal law.”

Leaders respond

The political impact could be seen in the reaction from leading figures in the country’s heated immigration debates.

“Today’s ruling essentially puts an end to immigration enforcement since the states no longer can step in and fill the void created by the Obama administration,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said.

President Barack Obama said he was pleased by the ruling. “A patchwork of state laws is not a solution to our broken immigration system,” he said. He remained concerned “about the practical impact” of the Arizona provision that allows local law officers to make immigration checks, Obama said.

Obama’s Republican rival, Mitt Romney, told supporters in Arizona: “I would have preferred to see the Supreme Court give more latitude to the states, not less.”

He also issued a statement calling the case “yet another broken promise by this president” because Obama has failed to get comprehensive immigration reform through Congress. “I believe that each state has the duty — and the right — to secure our borders and preserve the rule of law, particularly when the federal government has failed to meet its responsibilities.”

But the high court ruled that states do not have the power to act on their own as immigration enforcers.

“As a general rule, it is not a crime for a removable alien to remain present in the United States,” Kennedy wrote. And the “removal process is entrusted to the discretion of the federal government.”

One provision stands

The one part of the law the court upheld — the so-called “show me your papers” provision — rankled civil libertarians. But the court approved it only after giving pointed suggestions to the Arizona courts about how to interpret the provision to ensure that it involved what Kennedy referred to as only brief “status checks” that should not “result in prolonged detention.”

The opinion noted that the court’s approval now did not “foreclose other … constitutional challenges” if state officials implement the provision in ways that lead to harassment and discrimination against Latino citizens.

In response to the ruling, the Department of Homeland Security rescinded agreements to work with state and local police in Arizona. Federal officials said they were not interested in taking custody of immigrants stopped by police unless those apprehended were convicted criminals or repeat border crossers.

The court’s three most conservative justices sharply dissented. “As a sovereign, Arizona has the inherent power to exclude persons from its territory,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia, unless Congress clearly said otherwise. “If securing its territory … is not within the power of Arizona, we should cease referring to it as a sovereign state.”

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer issued a statement calling the decision “a victory for the rule of law.” She said the state was ready to begin implementing the provision that was upheld.

The chief justice also announced the court will meet Thursday to hand down the final opinions of the court’s term, including the long-anticipated ruling on the constitutionality of the Obama administration’s health-care law.