While the battle over SB 1070 reached a dramatic climax with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling this week, the most meaningful implications may well play out for years to come on the street when police arrest suspects and then in lower courts.
The ruling that upheld one key provision of the anti-immigration law didn’t settle as many issues as opponents and supporters would have their followers believe, legal experts said.
The high court allowed one controversial provision — one that requires police to check the immigration status of people they’ve stopped — to take affect. But the court only addressed whether the law is unconstitutional on its face, said Carissa Hessick, an Arizona State University law professor who has written extensively on SB 1070.
“We’ve seen the legal battle over the abstract principle at stake and over the balance between the federal and state powers, but I don’t think we have a good sense over what SB 1070 will mean on the ground,” Hessick said.
What’s critical is how police develop policies, training and priorities, she said. That could lead to future legal challenges where that key provision could be upheld, limited or struck down.
Hessick said both sides of the issue can claim some victories with the high court’s ruling — but only to a point.
“The decision on this part of the law is much more nuanced than people area appreciating,” Hessick said. “It wasn’t ‘This is fine.’ It was, ‘We don’t have enough information to say this is OK.’”
ASU law professor Evelyn Cruz expects the battle to wage for years in court. Cruz is director of the Immigration Law & Policy Clinic and said it’s often overlooked that many other provisions of SB 1070 haven’t been challenged in court — but could lead to other lawsuits.
One provision of SB 1070 could pose a problem for police on both sides of the issue, Cruz said.
The law allows citizens to sue a law enforcement agency if they believe SB 1070 is not being fully implemented. But other groups could sue police if they believe enforcement leads to racial profiling.
“I really feel for the police departments because they’re caught in a hard place,” Cruz said.
One of the most controversial parts of SB 1070 is still unresolved, Hessick said. The power to verify an immigrant’s legal status has raised concerns racial profiling is inherent in the 2010 law. While the court allowed the verification to occur, it noted that legal challenges could come forward once the law is put into effect.
“The aspect that everybody was so fired up about was never decided by the Supreme Court,” Hessick said.
One factor could be in flux indefinitely. The court gave presidents latitude to establish their own immigration policies and priorities, Cruz said. That means Arizona leaders frustrated with the Obama administration might find a more collaborate partner in, say, a Mitt Romney presidency.
A significant thing the court did establish is that states can’t pass laws that mimic federal laws when local lawmakers are unhappy with inaction in Washington, D.C., Hessick said. That could have broad applications with issues beyond immigration.
“It’s a signal I think that the mirror image theory maybe isn’t going to be as successful as we thought it might be,” Hessick said.