The news that the United States Supreme Court will decide on the constitutionality of an Arizona law that sought to impose state penalties on illegal immigrants will do more than provide a resolution to the bitter debate that has been raging about the measure. Coming as it will during a presidential election year, the Court will help keep the issue on the front burner and has the potential to mobilize both anti-immigration voters as well as people angry about what they claim is the targeting of Hispanics.
But the decision will almost certainly not advance the debate about what to do with 11 million illegal immigrants who are believed to be already in the country. If the Court rules, as did the 9th Federal Circuit, that immigration is a federal issue and, not withstanding the disproportionate impact of illegals on Arizona, is not the business of an individual state, then it will effectively end all state efforts to force the government to crack down on illegals. Indeed, for all of the talk among Republicans about reviving the 10th Amendment and the right of states to deal with matters that are not specifically federal issues, it is difficult, if not impossible to claim that entry into the United States is not the business of Washington.
The Obama administration has a specific stake in this case. It has fought the enforcement of the Arizona law tooth and nail and helped bring this matter before the High Court. But winning the legal case won’t be the same thing as winning it in the court of public opinion. Though the Arizona law has been widely portrayed as the product of anti-Hispanic prejudice, support for measures that would crack down on illegals have widespread support, especially in border states. Indeed, anything that creates more awareness of the issue could have the effect of mobilizing both the Republican and Democratic bases next fall.
The case could also help Mitt Romney’s faltering campaign. Though conservatives have hammered Romney on the key issue of health care because of his Massachusetts law, immigration is one issue on which he has swung hard to the right. Indeed, Newt Gingrich’s support for a form of amnesty for illegals, in which local boards, modeled after the old draft boards, would rule on applications from those in the country without documentation, could yet come back to haunt him. On the other hand, should Gingrich win the Republican nomination, his more liberal stand on illegals could diminish Obama’s overwhelming advantage with Hispanic voters by making it harder to argue that Republicans are unsympathetic to immigrants.