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What the Supreme Court’s SB 1070 Decision Means for Other States

This morning, the Supreme Court handed down its decision on SB 1070, Arizona’s economically devastating anti-immigrant law.  The Court struck down three of SB 1070’s four provisions and issued strong guidelines to limit the scope of Section 2(b), the only piece of the law that was upheld. Section 2(b), the racial profiling provision popularly known as “papers please,” continues to expose immigrants and communities of color to discrimination at the hands of law enforcement. Today’s decision assures future challenges to the provision and virtually ensures that it will not survive in the real world. As this decision gets returned to the lower courts to define the contours of the guidelines around the “papers please” section, other states should be increasingly wary of following Arizona’s economically destructive and divisive path.

Today’s ruling makes a few things clear. First, the Court has severely limited the circumstances under which states can take on federal immigration enforcement. The majority opinion, written by Justice Kennedy, emphatically rejected Arizona’s attempt to make it a state crime to fail to carry federal immigration papers at all times or to solicit or perform work.

Second, the Court in its decision today opened the door wide open for other challenges to Section 2(b). Justice Kennedy writes,

Detaining individuals solely to verify their immi­gration status would raise constitutional concerns. And it would disrupt the federal framework to put state officers in the position of holding aliens in custody for possible unlawful presence without federal direction and supervision. The program put in place by Congress does not allow state or local officers to adopt this enforcement mechanism.

As the law takes effect in Arizona, look for those concerns to turn into constitutional challenges as police abuse their wide discretion and continue to unlawfully detain immigrants.

The fate of anti-immigrant laws in other states that followed Arizona’s troubling path remain uncertain — though the ACLU provides a helpful breakdown here. The response from legislators in these states, however, has been crystal clear. In a statement today, Georgia’s House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams connected HB 87, Georgia’s SB 1070 copycat, with periods in the state’s tumultuous recent history: “The Supreme Court today issued a troubling ruling that encourages racial profiling, and we must remain vigilant that this does not happen in Georgia... We are very disappointed by the ‘show your papers’ provision, which returns us to a terrible time in our state's history."

The recent trend in state-level immigration policy has been to avoid SB 1070-style proposals. Not one state has passed an SB 1070 copycat bill this year. Efforts in recent years by legislatures in Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania to pass SB 1070 copycats have all failed.

Following today’s decision, civil rights groups pursuing other challenges to SB 1070 as well as copycat efforts in other states vowed to keep up the fight. “This decision should serve as a call to mobilize, organize, and advocate against divisive legislation like SB 1070 in Arizona and in any state,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.

With today’s ruling, the Supreme Court sent a strong message to all states: that they would be wise to avoid following the anti-immigrant path blazed by Arizona.