Dana Milbank: A rough month for immigration hard-liners

June 25, 2012

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer is many things — immigration provocateur, bete noire of Latinos, presidential irritant — but nobody has ever accused her of being a legal scholar.

On Monday morning, the Supreme Court struck down three of four contested provisions in her state’s immigration law and left the fourth in jeopardy. But Brewer decided to call it a win.

“Today’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court is a victory for the rule of law,” the Republican governor announced in a statement that left the strong impression it was written before the opinion was released. She used the word “victory” twice more in her written statement, and added the word “vindicated” to her oral remarks.

To be sure, the ruling left intact part of the immigration crackdown, the “show me your papers” component, which the court suggested might be vulnerable to future challenge. But Brewer certainly couldn’t have called it a victory if she had read the vitriolic dissent of Justice Antonin Scalia against the opinion by a union of the court’s liberal bloc with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

In an extraordinary display of judicial distemper, Scalia departed entirely from the law at one point and attacked an Obama administration policy that wasn’t at issue in the case. Footnoting a New York Times news article rather than case law, Scalia opined on a recent news conference by President Obama.

Scalia’s dissent, more campaign speech than legal opinion, claimed that the Obama administration “desperately wants to avoid upsetting foreign powers” and is acting with “willful blindness or deliberate inattention” to Arizona’s illegal immigrants. Saying the majority opinion “boggles the mind,” Scalia suggested that states are “at the mercy of the Federal Executive’s refusal to enforce the Nation’s immigration laws.”

Scalia’s stump speech capped a rough couple of weeks for immigration hard-liners. The reaction to Monday’s decision was overshadowed by the high court’s looming health-care ruling, but the case was the latest in a string of political victories for Latinos, who have been alternately ignored and abused the past few years.

During the Republican presidential primaries, Mitt Romney condemned Texas Gov. Rick Perry for supporting a law that granted in-state tuition rates to the children of illegal immigrants, and he vowed to veto the Dream Act, which offered the possibility of citizenship for young illegal immigrants. Romney also spoke of illegal immigrants going through “self-deportation” and, in remarks his campaign later sought to clarify, Romney described the Arizona law as a national model. No less an authority than Newt Gingrich called Romney anti-immigrant.

But now Romney, trailing Obama by 41 percentage points among Hispanics in a recent USA Today-Gallup poll, is struggling to change his image. After Obama said that he would stop deportations of certain young illegal immigrants, Romney demurred repeatedly when CBS News’s Bob Schieffer asked whether he would repeal the Obama policy.

Last week, Romney launched a 15-state Hispanic outreach effort called “Juntos con Romney,” and he promised the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials that he would pursue the “moral imperative” of bipartisan immigration reform. When a report came out last week that Romney wasn’t considering Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the Republicans’ Latino star, to be running mate, Romney quickly knocked down the report.

Monday’s ruling created a new complication for Romney, who refused to react to the decision other than to say it showed the need for “a president who will lead on this critical issue and work in a bipartisan fashion to pursue a national immigration strategy.” Romney, who happened to be traveling in Arizona, avoided giving reporters a chance to ask questions. The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker reported that a campaign spokesman was questioned for seven minutes but declined to say whether Romney agrees with the Supreme Court or supports Arizona’s law. Eventually, Romney produced some mild criticism of the decision, saying that “I would have preferred to see the Supreme Court give more latitude to the states, not less.”

It wasn’t exactly what immigration hard-liners had wanted: The Supreme Court invalidating most of the Arizona law in a 5-to-3 vote, and the Republicans’ presidential standard-bearer becoming skittish about a law he once praised. But Brewer did not let such concerns get in her way.

“The key components of our efforts to protect the citizens of Arizona to take up the fight against illegal immigration in a balanced and constitutional way [have] unanimously been vindicated by the highest court in the land,” she declared.

Beg your pardon, Governor, but would you remain inside your vehicle while we check your legal credentials?

danamilbank@washpost.com

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000.
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