High court hears arguments on AZ immigration law

Media and protesters swarm Arizona Governor Jan Brewer as she exits U.S. Supreme Court.
Media and protesters swarm Arizona Governor Jan Brewer as she exits U.S. Supreme Court.
Kitty Felde/KPCC

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The U.S. Supreme Court has wrapped up oral arguments on Arizona’s controversial immigration law.
The debate centers on how much power a state has to enforce federal immigration law.

Inside the courtroom, Justice Antonin Scalia asked whether a state has no power to close its borders to people who have no right to be there. He asked what sovereignty meant if not to defend one’s borders. Outside, Gov. Jan Brewer said Scalia’s words reassured her that she had the right to protect Arizona citizens.

The petite Governor was mobbed by dozens of reporters who found it difficult to hear her above the chants of protestors on the sidewalk. The crowd was as large as those who were here for the three days of arguments in the health care case, with signs, songs, and slogans for and against the Arizona law.

Brewer said she was struck by a line of questioning from Chief Justice John Roberts that suggested the Obama administration was ignoring information about undocumented immigrants living in the US. "It seems to me," said the Chief Justice, "that the Federal Government just doesn't want to know who is here illegally or not."

Some of the arguments focused on the nuts and bolts: What happens when an Arizona police officer checks the immigration status of a driver he’s pulled over? Cecillia Wang of the American Civil Liberties Union said the answer affects not only the undocumented, but US citizens as well. "There is no federal system that would readily clear United States citizens that are stopped during a traffic violation." Solicitor General Donald Verrilli told the Justices the only way the federal government can verify U.S. citizenship is with a passport. Only about a third of Americans have one.

There was a lively exchange between Verrilli and Scalia. Verrilli argued that "mass incarceration" by Arizona would be "a significant foreign relations problem." Justice Scalia snapped back "can't you avoid that particular foreign relations problem by simply deporting these people?" Verrilli said 60 to 70 percent of those deported are removed to Mexico, which creates problems for that country. Scalia asked whether we have to "enforce our laws in a manner that will please Mexico?"

The Arizona law would require police officers to check the immigration status of anyone pulled over in a traffic stop and make it a stage crime for an undocumented immigrant to look for work. A federal court set aside these portions of the law and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. A decision is expected by July.