But opponents stressed that, in addition to striking down three other sections of the Arizona law, the high court framed a narrow definition of what states can do to enforce immigration law and suggested that in some cases, even police questioning of legal status could still be open to legal challenge.
“The court has issued a sharp rebuke to Arizona and restated the limits on state power to deal with immigration matters,” said Cecilia Wang, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union in San Francisco. She said the ACLU will “go into court immediately” to challenge Arizona and “copycat” laws in other states on grounds of violating immigrants’ rights.
Laws that have been blocked in Georgia, Indiana and South Carolina all have provisions allowing police to question immigrants’ legal status, but all are written slightly differently and some may need to be changed to fit within the high court’s ruling.
National immigrant advocates said the situation in Alabama, where a federal court last year upheld part of a state law allowing local police to check immigrants’ legal status, makes them especially worried about what will happen if other states are allowed to follow suit. Tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have fled Alabama since the fall.
Alabama state Sen. Scott Beason, the state law’s sponsor, said he was “very pleased” that the high court upheld state police powers, but disappointed and confused by parts of the ruling that forbid states from making it a crime for immigrants to be in the state without proper documents.
“I think the court made the issue as clear as mud,” Beason said.
The greater Washington area has also served as a laboratory for tough immigration laws. In Prince William County, the 2007 law originally allowed police to check any individual’s immigration status. After protests, the law was modified to allow police to check the legal status only of people who have already been arrested.
County Board Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), who championed the county law and is now running for lieutenant governor of Virginia, said Monday that Prince William had found a “sweet spot” that would allow localities to crack down on illegal immigration without provoking problems. “I would not be surprised ultimately if Arizona goes the same way,” he said.
But local critics of the county law hold a more negative view. Tim Freilich, who heads an immigrant advocacy program for the Legal Aid Justice Center, said the county crackdown had “divided the community, it devastated the local economy.”
Staff writers Luz Lazo, N.C. Aizenman and Sandhya Somashekhar contributed to this report.