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The Supreme Court in Arizona: Implications for Minnesota

July 6, 2012

The Advocates for Human Rights celebrates the Supreme Court's ruling in Arizona v. United States. The decision is a welcome disruption of the trend toward state immigration enforcement laws. The Court determined that federal law preempts three key provisions of Arizona's state-level immigration law. In the process, the Court made clear that the federal government has "broad, undoubted power over the subject of immigration and the status of aliens."

The Court struck down three key sections of the Arizona immigration law attempting to criminalize what has long been treated as civil status violations.  Gone are the state crime of failure to register as an alien with the federal government and to carry registration documents if issued; the state crime of applying for work, soliciting work, working without authorization; and the provision authorizing state and local police officers to arrest immigrants without a warrant where "probable cause" exists that they committed a public offense making them removable from the United States.

The Court's ruling let the "show me your papers" provision stand for the present. The Court reminded states of the constitutional danger which overzealous interpretations of state authority pose. The Court clearly stated that "[d]etaining individuals solely to verify their immigration status would raise constitutional concerns," and that this section would survive pre-emption only absent some showing that its consequences are not adverse to federal law and its objectives.

The Supreme Court's ruling is an important reminder that immigration is, for good reason, a matter of federal law. The Court's ruling should give pause to those bent on an agenda to rid our country of immigrants by creating communities so hostile to undocumented people that they simply leave.

Arizona is not the only state attempting this hateful approach to circumvent federal immigration law. In the past three years alone, Minnesota has seen the introduction of no fewer than 20 bills stamped with the "attrition through enforcement" imprimatur. Those measures include dramatic cuts to medical assistance for undocumented Minnesotans which would have cut off life-saving treatment; English-only laws; requirements to enroll in the federal government's E-verify and Secure Communities programs; and laws banning community policing measures designed to ensure that immigrant crime victims can seek police protection.

This year, The Advocates' One Voice Minnesota initiative is undertaking a statewide effort to ask how welcoming Minnesota is and to define what a welcoming community looks like. We're asking Minnesotans to consider what our state can look like if the human rights of everyone - regardless of documentation status - are respected, protected, and fulfilled.

As an advocate for human rights, the most striking part of the decision is  the Court's articulation of the complexity of immigration and of the implications the enforcement of immigration laws may have on individual human lives:

Discretion in the enforcement of immigration law embraces immediate human concerns. Unauthorized workers trying to support their families, for example, likely pose less danger than alien smugglers or aliens who commit a serious crime. The equities of an individual case may turn on many factors, including whether the alien has children born in the United States, long ties to the community, or a record of distinguished military service. Some discretionary decisions involve policy choices that bear on this Nation's international relations. The foreign state may be mired in civil war, complicit in political persecution, or enduring conditions that create a real risk that the alien or his family will be harmed upon return. The dynamic nature of relations with other countries requires the Executive Branch to ensure that enforcement policies are consistent with this Nation's foreign policy with respect to these and other realities.

The Court acknowledged what those of us working with immigrants and refugees understand: every case is different and no case is simple.  In answer to the question we hear so often, "what part of 'illegal' don't you understand?" the Court reminds us that the answer is complex. We might instead ask: "what part of 'human' don't you understand?"

By Michele Garnett McKenzie, Advocacy Director

This post was first published as a Commentary on