Our National Immigration Policy: Still Clear as Mud

The Supreme Court's decision did little to clarify the patchwork of measures that have sprouted after years of federal inaction

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Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

A demonstrator holding a placard during a protest against Arizona's Senate Bill 1070 outside the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington on April 25, 2012

Both sides of the immigration debate claimed victory Monday after the Supreme Court ruled against most, but not all, of the provisions in Arizona’s stringent law. But the decision does little to settle the battle raging in Arizona — and nothing to clarify a staggeringly complex patchwork of immigration measures nationwide that have sprouted in the absence of a concise federal policy.

Here’s why: the Supreme Court upheld Arizona’s “papers please” provision, which requires that police officers check the immigration status of people they stop. But a separate legal case, based on civil rights claims, is currently blocking that same provision. U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton has placed an injunction on the “papers please” provision alleging that it violates constitutional guarantees of equal protection and unreasonable searches. Authorities can enforce the provision upheld Monday by the Supreme Court — but not until Judge Bolton lifts the injunction.

(MORE: Supreme Court Blocks Key Provisions of Arizona Law, Affirming Broad Federal Power over Immigration)

Welcome to the utter chaos surrounding U.S. immigration policy, compounded by 26 years of federal inaction. The Obama Administration’s Jekyll and Hyde approach has only further muddied the waters. Opponents of undocumented immigration, for example, have lauded the President’s deportation record. Obama has deported a record 1.2 million immigrants during his three and half years in office, compared with the 1.6 million immigrants deported during George W. Bush’s eight-year presidency. But the same people have also railed against Obama’s recent decision to provide work permits to undocumented youths under the age of 30 who went to the U.S. as children.

(MORE: Barack Obama: A Nation of Laws and a Nation of Immigrants)

Likewise, immigration advocates have credited the Obama Administration for challenging the Arizona law in court and for filing a lawsuit against Arizona’s Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio for his pattern of “unlawful discrimination” against Hispanics. The same advocates, though, have repeatedly called on Obama to end several initiatives, including the Secure Communities program, which calls on local police to enter the fingerprints of anyone they detain into a federal database. Recently, elected officials in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York have joined counterparts across the country in denouncing the program.

Absent of a coherent policy, state legislatures have followed in the federal government’s wavering footsteps. Utah, for example, was one of five states to pass Arizona-style legislation in 2011. Although currently restrained by a federal judge, the Utah law calls on police officials to check the immigration status of those stopped for violations, among other provisions. But as part of the same bipartisan deal that approved the law, Utah also passed a groundbreaking guest-worker bill, which will allow undocumented immigrants to live and work in the state as long as they pass background checks and pay fines starting in 2013. Similarly, states like Kansas and Oklahoma have pushed (unsuccessfully) for Arizona-style legislation while also structuring guest-worker bills based on the Utah model.

(MORE: Jose Antonio Vargas: How Obama’s New Policy Affects Undocumented Youths — and Me)

While the Supreme Court’s decision Monday does little to clarify this situation, it does confirm that a new trend is afoot, one in which legislators and the public alike distance themselves from hard-line immigration positions. While 2011 saw five states approve legislation based on the Arizona model, perhaps more indicative of a national mood toward immigration was the fact that over two dozen states rejected Arizona-style legislation. And in addition to guest-worker bills popping up in several states, 2011 also saw at least 12 states introduce DREAM bills that would make lower, in-state tuition rates available to students regardless of their immigration status. These initiatives coincide with recent national polls that point to a softening stance on immigration among the American public. A recent Gallup poll, for example, found that 66% of Americans think immigration is a “good thing,” compared with 59% who held the same view last year.

Critics and advocates of undocumented immigration have little in common, of course, but on one point they can see eye to eye. Tired of filling the vacuum left by 26 years of Washington’s do-nothing policy, they both urge the federal government to address the fundamental problems of U.S. immigration laws, and that, they agree, can only be achieved through comprehensive reform.

MORE: Not Legal Not Leaving