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By asserting the federal government’s authority over immigration policy, the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday increased pressure on congressional Republicans to act at a time when they are divided over the issue.
The court’s decision scaling back Arizona’s first-of-its- kind crackdown on illegal immigrants emphasized the extent to which Republicans are caught between their party’s base, which favors stricter enforcement measures like the Arizona law, and those who support a path to permanent residency for some people who are in the U.S. illegally.
“You can definitely get a sense of the divide within the Republican Party,” said Jacob Vigdor, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University. “Republicans don’t want to be out in public being too aggressively anti- immigrant.”
Republicans also don’t want to be seen as backing off efforts to combat illegal immigration, Vigdor said.
The top Republicans in the House and Senate, Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, remained silent on the ruling yesterday, even as other congressional Republicans renewed calls for tighter enforcement.
Complicating matters for Republicans, the court issued its ruling 10 days after President Barack Obama’s directive to halt deportations of some young people brought to the U.S. illegally, a policy change that has strong public support.
“Since the presidential order, there have been a lot of signs that the dominant mood in the public is favoring an attempt to really solve the immigration problem rather than demagogue it,” said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a Washington-based nonprofit group that backs an overhaul of immigration laws.
Republican lawmakers have focused their criticism of Obama’s directive on his decision to bypass Congress, rather than on the substance of the announcement.
Immigration has “certainly been put on the front burner by the president’s decision,” McConnell told reporters today.
A Bloomberg News poll released June 19 showed that 64 percent of likely voters surveyed after Obama’s announcement said they agreed with the policy, while 30 percent disagreed. Independent voters backed the decision by a better than 2-to-1 ratio.
Democrats hailed the Supreme Court’s ruling on immigration as a repudiation of Arizona’s law, which they said promotes racial profiling, and criticized Republicans for congressional inaction.
The court invalidated criminal restrictions that would have barred those in the U.S. illegally from seeking work or being in Arizona without proper documentation. The ruling said a requirement that local police check the immigration status of people they suspect are in the U.S. illegally could take effect, while leaving open the possibility of later challenges.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said the court’s ruling “shows that the Obama administration was right to challenge this law, which was not just ill-advised but also unconstitutional.”
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that Latinos make up 27 percent of the population in Nevada, a presidential battleground state.
Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said today in an interview that he didn’t think the chances were good that Republicans would be able to unite behind an approach to immigration.
“I hope so, but I don’t see my colleagues being pressured on immigration that much,” said Menendez, who has been an advocate of a broad immigration overhaul that includes a path to citizenship.
Democrats have been trying to ensure that Latinos, who supported Obama over Republican John McCain by a greater-than 2- 1 ratio four year ago, turn out again in this year’s election to vote for Obama and other Democratic candidates.
Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the Senate’s third- ranking Democrat, called the ruling “as strong a repudiation of the Arizona law as one could expect given that the law has not been implemented yet.”
“The court is sending a stern warning to Arizona that the provision allowing local law enforcement to check people’s immigration documents cannot be implemented in a discriminatory or draconian way, or it will be thrown out like the rest of the law,” said Schumer, chairman of the Senate Judiciary panel’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security.
Schumer said April 24 that if the court didn’t invalidate the law, he would push for a measure to make clear that Congress doesn’t intend for states to enact immigration enforcement strategies.
“We are now examining the decision to see what to do,” Schumer said today in an interview when asked if he planned to move forward with the bill because the court didn’t strike down the entire law.
For a decade, since then-President George W. Bush couldn’t gain support for what he called a balanced approach, lawmakers have been unable to advance immigration legislation.
As with other policy issues, including health care and climate change, the Republican Party has moved far to the right since Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah in 2001 proposed legislation granting legal status for younger illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
The proposal, known as the Dream Act, fell out of favor in the past two years with Republican conservatives, many backed by the Tea Party. Hatch, who avoided voting on the measure in late 2010 when Republicans and a few Democrats killed it in the Senate, faces a Tea-Party-backed challenger, former state senator Dan Liljenquist, in today’s Republican primary.
McCain and Senator Jon Kyl, both Arizona Republicans, said the ruling “appears to validate a key component” of the law.
“The Arizona law was born out of the state’s frustration with the burdens that illegal immigration and continued drug smuggling impose on its schools, hospitals, criminal justice system and fragile desert environment, and an administration that chooses to set enforcement policies based on a political agenda, not the laws as written by Congress,” McCain and Kyl said in a joint statement.
McCain was the lead Republican negotiator on the last significant bipartisan attempt at an immigration overhaul in 2006 and 2007.
“It’s very clear that we are losing a very large segment of the Hispanic vote,” McCain told reporters yesterday. “That’s a fact.”
In a statement, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith said the ruling “essentially puts an end to immigration enforcement” because states “can no longer step in and fill the void” created by federal inaction.
The decision “is especially bad news for border states” by limiting the ability “to protect their citizens and communities from illegal immigrants,” said Smith, a Texas Republican.
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