By David G. Savage, Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court will decide in coming months whether Arizona and other states can target illegal immigrants for arrest, setting the stage for an election-year ruling that will vault the justices into the contentious political debate over efforts to crack down on immigration violators.
The announcement means that the justices will rule next year on three highly partisan issues, including a challenge to President Barack Obama’s signature health care law and a voting-rights case in Texas. Those rulings could play an election role not seen since a 1992 ruling to limit some abortion rights energized women’s rights groups and helped propel Bill Clinton into the White House.
Leading Republican candidates for president, caught between appealing to their anti-immigrant base and possibly alienating the growing bloc of Latino voters, have ramped up their debate over whether to arrest and deport the estimated 11 million people who have entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas. The Obama administration, which has deported nearly 400,000 people this year, has contested stronger anti-immigration laws adopted in several Republican-led states.
Defining the limits of state and federal authority will be foremost in the immigration case, as well as in the dispute over the health care law. Lawyers for 26 Republican-led states want the health care law struck down entirely.
In another highly partisan dispute, the court on Friday agreed to rule on a Texas congressional remapping that figured to give Republicans four more seats in the House of Representatives. Obama’s lawyers contend that the plan denied fair representation to the state’s growing Latino population.
The Arizona immigration case will likely decide the fate of stronger enforcement laws adopted in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah.
At issue is whether states may enforce the immigration laws on their own, or instead must closely follow the lead of the federal government.
The Constitution gave Congress the power to set a “uniform rule of naturalization,” and this has been understood to mean the federal government decides who may enter or stay in the country. But the Supreme Court had not ruled broadly for decades on whether states may or may not enforce rules involving illegal immigrants.
In May, however, the court took a step in favor of the states in what may be a preview of the coming case. By a 5-3 vote, the justices upheld a separate Arizona law that denied business licenses to employers who repeatedly hired illegal workers.
The new case began in July 2010 when Obama’s lawyers filed suit in Phoenix and argued Arizona had gone too far by enlisting its police to enforce the immigration laws. Under SB 1070, police are required to check the immigration status people they lawfully stop and suspect of being in the country illegally. The law also makes illegal immigration a state crime.
U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton blocked much of the law from taking effect, and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld her decision.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican who says the state has an “inherent police power” within its own borders, welcomed the court’s intervention Monday. The case “is about every state grappling with the costs of illegal immigration,” she said.
The court’s announcement said Justice Elena Kagan had stepped aside in the case, creating the possibility of a 4-4 split. A tie vote would affirm the 9th Circuit Court’s decision, giving a win to the Obama administration and a defeat to Arizona.
Since taking office, Obama’s administration has adopted a targeted enforcement policy for illegal immigrants. It seeks to deport those who are convicted of crimes such as drug smuggling or repeatedly crossing the border, not those who are law-abiding. Last year, nearly 400,000 people were deported, a record.
On Monday, the U.S. Border Patrol in Tucson, Ariz., reported a sharp drop in arrests connected to border crossings. It said border apprehensions were down by 41 percent, to a “level not seen in 17 years.”
Polls show Americans are about evenly split on whether they favor stronger enforcement or a “path to citizenship.” Nearly half of Republicans and Democrats surveyed by the Pew Center last month said they favored a balanced approach.
The top contenders for the Republican presidential nomination were sharply divided in a debate Saturday when they were asked about the millions of illegal immigrants who live in the U.S.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said longtime immigrants with families in the country should be allowed to stay. “I do not believe the people of the United States are going to send the police in to rip that kind of person out and ship them out of this country,” he said.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney objected to this “form of amnesty.” He said allowing them “to stay permanently … will create another magnet” drawing more illegal entrants.
The court’s ruling will come just as Obama and his Republican challenger are battling for Latino support in closely divided states, among them Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Florida.
The president has remained relatively popular among Latinos, despite grumbling among immigrant rights groups about his aggressive deportation policies and his failure to push hard for comprehensive immigration reform.
Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, said Obama’s initial decision to challenge the Arizona law was enough to ensure his standing among Latinos, regardless of the outcome in court.
“If he wins, he gets the credit, and if he loses, he doesn’t get the blame,” Gonzalez said.
For the Republican nominee, whoever it might be, the issue is more complex. For months, GOP presidential candidates have sought to appeal to the party’s conservative base by stressing their support of tough enforcement of immigration laws.
But by the time the court rules, the nominee will face the political imperative of muting those appeals in order to compete with Obama for Latino support.
(Michael Finnegan of the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.)
©2011 Tribune Co.