The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments late last month in a high-profile case with heavy political implications — the lawsuit by 26 states against “Obamacare.” On Wednesday, the justices will hear oral arguments in another such case — Arizona’s appeal of lower court rulings that blocked the state’s immigration law.
In the first case, those 26 states, including ours, rightly cited the 2010 health reform law’s “individual mandate” requiring the purchase of medical insurance as an unprecedented — and unconstitutional — expansion of federal power.
In the second case, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli rightly stressed in a brief for the Obama administration that “it is the national government that has the ultimate responsibility to regulate the treatment of aliens while on American soil, because it is the nation as a whole — not any single state — that must respond to the international consequences of such treatment.”
But while the national government does have the “ultimate responsibility” for immigration, it has long ducked that crucial obligation. Thus, some states, including ours, have passed laws aimed at minimizing the damage done by federal neglect of that duty.
Those state laws raise pertinent concerns beyond their challenge to the primary federal authority for immigration. It’s logical to fear that racial profiling will rise if local and state police are empowered to demand proof of citizenship on the basis of “reasonable suspicion” that somebody stopped for a minor offense might be an illegal immigrant.
And it’s logical to realize that illegal immigrants can easily cross state borders once they are in the U.S.
Yet it’s also logical to point out that these state immigration laws would not even exist if our national government had not long failed to control the nearly 2,000-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico.
Regardless of the high court’s verdict on the Arizona law, America needs strengthened federal immigration enforcement — and comprehensive immigration-reform legislation from Congress.
Federal lawmakers have retreated from that overdue task since President George W. Bush’s attempts to forge a bipartisan consensus on it in 2006 and 2007 triggered a severe backlash from the right.
During that process, some Republican senators who dared to seek middle ground on immigration incurred the wrath of the party’s conservative base. South Carolina’s senior senator is still scorned by immigration hard-liners as “Lindsey Grahamnesty” because he backed a “pathway to citizenship” — despite the fact that the plan couldn’t fairly be branded as amnesty.
Meanwhile, many of those same conservatives are still ardent fans of President Ronald Reagan, who signed a 1986 reform bill that granted sweeping amnesty to illegal immigrants when there were only about 3 million of them in the U.S.
With current estimates of at least 11 million illegal immigrants now living in our country, rounding them all up and deporting them isn’t a realistic option.
But neither is the status quo. Though many undocumented workers provide badly needed labor, particularly in agriculture, the soaring numbers of illegal immigrants over the last two decades have inevitably imposed soaring costs in education and social services.
The Supreme Court will have the last legal word on that Arizona law, with obvious implications for other states with similar laws. But that won’t be the final verdict on this controversial issue.
In the long run, our national problem of illegal immigration can’t be solved by the courts — or the states.
It must be solved by effective federal enforcement of federal law — and by fundamental, practical reforms.