The Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared to side with the state of Arizona in a high-stakes hearing over the legality of Arizona's controversial immigration law.
Justices were considering the legality of a state law that bars illegal immigrants from seeking employment and requires law enforcement officials to check the status of anyone suspected of entering the country illegally. The case is considered a bellwether test of state power versus federal authority.
"If, in fact, somebody who does not belong in this country is in Arizona, Arizona has no power?" Justice Antonin Scalia asked in one telling part of Wednesday's hearing. "What does sovereignty mean if it does not include the ability to defend your borders?"
Four key components of the law have been blocked by lower federal courts, even as they have been duplicated in other statehouses around the country. The Arizona law is the only one that has yet been considered by the Supreme Court.
Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from Wednesday's hearing, as she was the Obama administration's solicitor general when the administration began its legal challenge against the Arizona law. Kagan's absence raises the possibility of a 4-4 split on the court.
Even liberal justices on the court expressed skepticism over the government's arguments on Wednesday, although there was more concern over the length of time that a person could be detained while their immigration status was checked.
Paul Clement, a lawyer representing the state of Arizona, argued - as Arizona officials have long said - that the federal government has been derelict in its defense of the southwestern state's borders and that the resulting flood of immigrants from Mexico has stressed the state's economy and law enforcement.
But Solicitor General Donald Verrilli argued that Arizona had overreached in its enactment of the law and that chaos would result if states were allowed to supersede federal authority.
The Justice Department has estimated that out of Arizona's population of roughly 2 million Latinos, about 400,000 are illegal immigrants.
Fearing the possibility that the court might uphold the state law, Senate Democratic leaders have already begun preparing a bill that would essentially nullify it.
"Immigration has not and never has been an area where states are able to exercise independent authority," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday, noting that he would introduce the bill should the Supreme Court "ignore" the "plain and unambiguous statements of congressional intent."
Schumer's proposal would restrict states to arresting illegal immigrants only if they are operating under an "explicit agreement" with federal officials. It would also bar states from passing certain employment verification laws.
Arizona officials have argued that the state bears a disproportionate burden in trying to police its border with Mexico and that federal inaction forced the state to adopt the new law.
by RTT Staff Writer
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