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Supreme Court to hear Arizona immigration case: Who wins, loses?

David Goldman / AP file

Demonstrators march in lower Manhattan to protest Arizona's controversial immigration law during a rally in New York on May 1, 2010.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision on the fate of Arizona’s strict anti-illegal immigration law will have implications far beyond the Grand Canyon state’s borders. But who ultimately wins and loses will be up for debate even after the justices rule by this summer.

The high court on Wednesday will hear oral arguments on SB 1070, a bill signed by Gov. Jan Brewer in April 2010 to help authorities drive illegal immigrants out of Arizona. Implementation of the most controversial sections  -- including a requirement that local police check the immigration status of a criminal suspect if they have “reasonable suspicion” that person is in the country illegally -- has been put on hold by lower courts pending action by the Supreme Court.

The Obama administration is arguing the law should be struck down because immigration policy is rightfully set by the federal government, not states. Arizona, the border of choice for illegal entries from Mexico, contends immigration isn’t exclusively a federal matter and the state has the right to act because federal authorities haven’t done their job.


The fate of similar immigration laws in states like Alabama and Georgia will also likely hinge on the high court’s decision. Meanwhile, states like New York and California fear that illegal immigrants will flee from Arizona to their locales if the law is upheld.

“Depending on how the court rules, our nation could be changed in major ways, because the decision may shift power dramatically between the states and the federal government,” says Margaret Stock, an immigration lawyer and University of Alaska Anchorage adjunct professor who has written numerous articles and testified before Congress on immigration law issues.

“The Supremes' decision will have a significant bearing on other states' actions -- whichever parts of SB 1070 are upheld are likely to be replicated in a number of other states,” adds Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies,  a Washington-based research organization that supports tougher immigration policies.

Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images file

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer is a staunch defendant of SB 1070.

If the major components of the law are struck down, it would be a serious rebuke to Arizona and Brewer, who says California and the 10 other states supporting the Obama administration’s argument are misguided in their criticism.

“States joining California in opposing Arizona in this fight may think they have little at stake. They are buffered from the troubles along our nation’s southern border by geography or, in the case of Hawaii, an entire ocean,” Brewer said in a statement on March 29. “But this debate is not just about illegal immigration. It is about every state’s authority and obligation to act in the best interest and welfare of its citizens.”

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Brewer’s reputation – and perhaps even her political future -- are at stake if the law is struck down.

“I think that a governor’s job is to make the lives of people who live in the state better. Certainly either Jan Brewer is going to look like a fool … or she’s going to fail in her job of governing Arizona well,” says Ian Millhiser, senior constitutional policy analyst with the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

Stock says even if the justices uphold Arizona's law, Arizona could still turn out to be the loser. 

“The law that Arizona passed is very expensive to implement, and is likely to cause businesses and younger families to leave Arizona for other states like California. Arizona could lose a lot of business and thousands of people might leave the state, or decide not to settle there in the first place.  So even if Arizona ‘wins,’ the victory may be a Pyrrhic one,” she told msnbc.com by email.

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Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative government watchdog group, doesn’t buy that argument. He says crime in Arizona has dropped significantly since passage of SB 1070 and predicts there will be “a rush of other states” to follow Arizona’s example if the law is upheld.

"Arizona won’t complain if illegal aliens leave, that’s for sure," he said. “If upheld, Arizona won’t be an outlier."

State Sen. Russell Pearce, author of the bill, says Phoenix has experienced a 30-year low crime rate since SB 1070's passage. "To ignore the positive impact of SB 1070 in the city of Phoenix is to ignore the huge elephant in the middle of the room," he wrote in a court brief.

Some Arizona hotel managers say the tourism industry took a hit due to the recession and the controversy over the immigration law, as some groups announced boycotts of the state. The lodging industry now appears to be rebounding slowly, with mixed numbers for January and February but an overall strong March, hotel managers said at a recent convention.

Robert Hayward of Warnick & Co., who led the convention, said Arizona's image has improved in the minds of travelers, and he hopes the upcoming Supreme Court hearing won't reverse that.

"The concern is how the Supreme Court opens that issue back up and how that will impact the impression [of Arizona] on a national level going forward," Hayward told the crowd, KTVK reported.

Immigration from Mexico at standstill, report says

Gabriel “Jack” Chin, an immigration law expert who spoke out vigorously against SB 1070 while he was a professor at the University of Arizona, says it’ll hard to predict who will emerge a winner or loser even after the high court rules.

“One might assume that Mexican families would come out ahead if the law is struck down, because the states would not be able to pass laws designed to drive them out.  But in the past, when state immigration laws have been struck down by the Supreme Court, there sometimes has been a legal backlash. For example, when California's laws designed to keep out Chinese immigrants were held unconstitutional in 1876, Congress responded by passing the Chinese Exclusion Act," says Chin, who is now with UC Davis.

“If the United States wins the case, it may be a disaster for Mexican families because it could lead Congress to embrace even more rigorous enforcement methods. The same underlying political dynamic means that if Arizona loses, it could hurt the Republicans because it shows they went too far, or it could help them because it shows that the only way this issue can be resolved is by electing a Republican Congress,” Chin adds.

Fitton, of Judicial Watch, says the ruling could be a double-edged sword not for Arizona, but for Obama.

“If he loses here it feeds the narrative that his agencies are out of control with these lawsuits attacking states and politicizing immigration,” Fitton says. And if justices rule against the federal government, he says, “I think it will motivate his opponents.”

Evelyn Haydee Cruz, a law professor who directs the Immigration Law & Policy Clinic at Arizona State University, predicts a mixed Supreme Court ruling in which there are no clear-cut winners and losers.

“The constitutional question is so complex that most likely both sides will be unhappy with some parts and happy with others. Each of the players will try to grab onto whatever language in the decision makes them look better,” Cruz says. “The Arizona governor will look for language validating state enforcement of immigration laws and state independence.  The Obama administration will look for language that preserves federal supremacy over immigration policy.”

A decision in Arizona v. United States is expected in June or July. You can read a preview of the arguments in the case here.

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