WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is waging a furious legal fight against a patchwork of state laws targeting illegal immigrants, and on Monday the Supreme Court has its first chance to jump into the fray.
If the justices take the case, it would add another politically charged dispute between a Republican-dominated state and the Democratic administration to the court's election-year lineup. The immigration case would be heard and decided at roughly the same time as the constitutional challenge to President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. Just Friday, the justices intervened in a partisan fight over redistricting in Texas. That case will be heard in January.
Arizona is asking the justices to allow the state to begin enforcing measures that have been blocked by lower courts at the administration's request. Among those provisions is one that requires police, while enforcing other laws, to question a person's immigration status if officers suspect he is in the country illegally.
Similar laws in Alabama, South Carolina and Utah also are facing Obama administration lawsuits. Private groups are suing over immigration measures adopted in Georgia and Indiana.
The Justice Department says that regulating immigration is the job of the federal government, not states.
Arizona counters that the federal government isn't doing enough to address illegal immigration and that border states are suffering disproportionately.
In urging the court to hear the immigration case, Arizona says the administration's contention that states "are powerless to use their own resources to enforce federal immigration standards without the express blessing of the federal executive goes to the heart of our nation's system of dual sovereignty and cooperative federalism."
Many other state and local governments have taken steps aimed at reducing the effects of illegal immigration, the state says.
But the administration argues that the various legal challenges making their way through the system is reason to wait and see how other courts rule and not take this case now.
In April, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld a federal judge's ruling halting enforcement of several provisions of Arizona's S.B. 1070. 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.
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.
Lawsuits in South Carolina and Utah are not as far along.
Eleven states, including Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, back Arizona's appeal as do several conservative groups.