WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday delivered a split decision on Arizona's tough 2010 immigration law, upholding its most hotly debated provision but blocking others on the grounds that they interfered with the federal government's role in setting immigration policy.
The court unanimously sustained the law's centerpiece, the one critics have called the "show me your papers" provision.
That provision requires state law enforcement officials to determine the immigration status of anyone they stop or arrest if there is reason to suspect the individual might be an illegal immigrant.
But the justices struck down three major provisions:
- Requiring all immigrants to obtain or carry immigration registration papers.
- Making it a state criminal offense for an illegal immigrant to seek work or hold a job.
- Allowing police to arrest suspected illegal immigrants without warrants.
The vote was 6-2 against making it a state crime not to carry immigration papers and 5-3 against the other two provisions.
Justice Elena Kagan sat out the case because of her previous work in the Obama Administration.
The rulings are likely to set the ground rules for further debate on immigration, with supporters of the Arizona law pushing for "show me your papers" provisions in more states and opponents trying to overturn criminal sanctions for illegal immigrants.
"Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration while that process continues, but the state may not pursue policies that undermine federal law," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.
Justice Antonin Scalia summarized his dissent from the bench, a rare move that indicated his deep disagreement.
Justice Scalia's point was a narrow one — that the states should have the right to make immigration policy if the federal government is not enforcing its own policies.
The court also announced it was extending its term until Thursday, signaling it would issue its much-anticipated ruling on President Obama's health-care law then.
Both Mr. Obama and Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, quickly responded to the immigration ruling.
Mr. Romney — traveling, by coincidence, in Arizona — said in a brief statement that states have the right and the duty to secure their borders.
In Scottsdale, Ariz., later Monday, Mr. Romney said he would have preferred the court "give more latitude to the states" in immigration enforcement.
He told campaign donors the law has "become a muddle" and that the states have more options to enforce their own immigration laws.
Mr. Obama emphasized his concern that the remaining provision could lead to racial profiling, an issue the court may yet consider in a future case.
"No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like," Mr. Obama said, adding he was "pleased" about the parts that were struck down.
In her own statement, Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona, a Republican, said she welcomed the decision to uphold what she called the heart of the law.
Still, the ruling was a partial rebuke to state officials who had argued they were entitled to supplement federal efforts to address illegal immigration.
The Obama Administration argued that federal immigration law trumped — or pre-empted, in legal jargon — the state's efforts.
Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr., said the federal government would "continue to vigorously enforce federal prohibitions against racial and ethnic discrimination."
Five other states have enacted tough measures to stem illegal immigration, more or less patterned after the Arizona law: Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Utah.
But most states avoided creating new crimes for immigration violations, as Arizona did in two provisions that were struck down.
In upholding the requirement that the police ask to see people's papers, the court emphasized that state law enforcement officials already possessed the discretion to ask about immigration status. The Arizona law merely makes that inquiry mandatory if the police have reason to suspect a person is an illegal immigrant.