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Immigration's split decision

The U.S. is badly in need of immigration reform, and if the case hadn't been made sufficiently by President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney's dueling views of the matter last week, the nation's highest court has now weighed into the debate, too.

In striking down three of four challenged sections of Arizona's anti-illegal immigration law on a 5-3 vote (with Justice Elena Kagan recused), theU.S. Supreme Court has chosen to side with the Obama administration on everything but what many saw as the most controversial aspect of the 2010 law — the provision that allows police officers to check the immigration status of people they stop.

While disappointing, the court's choice to uphold that section of the law wasn't too great a surprise. In oral arguments in April, some justices appeared to be leaning toward that position. The U.S. already routinely provides information about legal status to police when requested.

In granting that victory to the state, the court has greatly increased the likelihood of racial profiling. Police must have "reasonable suspicion" to inquire about immigration under the state law; merely being Latino would not be regarded as permissible, but what would? That isn't clear from the court's decision — and there's likely to be additional legal wrangling over alleged incidents of racial profiling in Arizona and elsewhere for many years to come as a result.

What is apparent, however, is that neither Arizona nor any of the other states that have passed tough anti-immigration laws in recent years has the authority to act independently of the federal government and invent new laws or penalties to address the matter, no matter how frustrating they may find current policy.

The court struck down the provisions of the law that make it a crime for illegal immigrants not to possess federal ID cards, make it a crime for illegal immigrants to seek employment in the U.S. and allow police to arrest an illegal immigrant without a warrant. In all three cases, Arizona was essentially usurping federal authority.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer may have howled and stuck out a finger when President Obama directed Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to sue the state over the law, but the conservative court's decision demonstrates the choice was more than justified and not merely an exercise in partisan politics, as the GOP alleged. The controversial ruling also underscores just how misguided is the whole concept of "self-deportation" — the notion that making life difficult for undocumented immigrants will ultimately lead them to voluntarily leave the country.

Yet many Republicans cling to the theory that stopping a Spanish-speaking person on the street and demanding to see his or her "papers" is an appropriate vision for America and not better suited to Cold War Eastern Europe or some third world dictatorship. Such a heavy-handed approach that aggressively pursues people who are otherwise law-abiding has done wonders for Mr. Obama's appeal with Hispanic voters, despite the fact the incumbent president has actually deported more illegal immigrants in his first term than his Republican predecessor.

Make no mistake, the court's decision is probably not the final word on immigration any more than Mr. Obama's decision last week not to deport the estimated 800,000 young people who came to the U.S. illegally as children solved the problem. What the U.S. needs right now is comprehensive immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship for those who deserve it.

But that seems beyond the reach of politically gridlocked Washington right now, particularly if the GOP continues to insist on demonizing the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country. If true reform couldn't happen whenGeorge W. Bushadvocated for it as president because of Republican opposition in Congress, it seems even less likely today.

In the meantime, our nation's leaders need to stand up to the divisive rhetoric coming out of places like Phoenix or Montgomery, Alabama. Immigrants ought to be assured that they can report a crime, for instance, without fear of arrest and deportation. If police want to enforce federal immigration law, let them focus first on those who commit more serious crimes while living in the U.S. than simply looking like they came from somewhere else.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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