U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Portions of AZ Immigration Law

The U.S. Supreme Court made a key decision on June 25, 2012 regarding the limitations on state authority over immigration control. In Arizona vs. United States, the Supreme Court struck down three of four contested provisions of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, S.B. 1070. Visitors to MurthyDotCom and our Twitter followers were advised of this decision on June 25, 2012, when we posted NewsFlash! Supreme Court Issues Split Decision on Arizona Immigration Law.

Main Issue: Federal Supremacy Clause

The Arizona case is about federal versus state powers. The Court explains that federalism, which is a central element of the U.S. constitution, adopts the principle that both the federal and state governments have elements of sovereignty that must be respected by the other. Further, the Supremacy Clause in the Constitution provides that federal law is the supreme law in the United States. Thus, under this principle, Congress has the power to preempt state law in areas that are within the sole jurisdiction of the federal government.

Case Underscores the Federal Doctrine of Preemption

In this case, the Court determined that power exerted, over immigration control, by the State of Arizona, was preempted by federal law and the jurisdiction that the federal government exerts with respect to U.S. immigration law and policy.

As explained in the case, the federal intent to preempt state law can be inferred when:

“… a framework of regulation ‘so pervasive…that Congress left no room for the States to supplement it’ or where ‘a federal interest is so dominant that the federal system will be assumed to preclude enforcement of state laws on the subject.” Alternatively, state laws are preempted when they create “an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.”

Three of Four Portions of S.B. 1070 Found Unconstitutional

The U.S. Supreme Court found that three out of the four challenged clauses are unconstitutional because Federal law preempts them. These provisions are explained below.

  • The Arizona law contained a provision making it a state crime to violate federal laws regarding registration of foreign nationals. The Court found that state power regarding registration of foreign nationals was preempted because the federal framework in this area is comprehensive, leaving no room for additional state regulation of any type.
  • The Arizona law also created a state crime prohibiting undocumented foreign nationals from applying for, soliciting or performing work in Arizona. The Court found that the creation of this crime would be an obstacle to the existing federal regulatory scheme in place to combat unauthorized employment. Under the federal system, employers are required to verify employment authorization and may be charged criminally for intentional acts related to unauthorized employment. The penalties against the employees, however, are civil, not criminal. Thus, a state law that is contrary to this established system creates an obstacle to the system and was found by the Court to be preempted.
  • The third portion of the Arizona law found to be unconstitutional permitted Arizona’s state and local police to make warrantless arrests of individuals suspected of having committed any offense that would make them removable (deportable). The Court explained that even federal immigration officers are limited in their arrest authority over potentially removable foreign nationals. The Arizona provisions conflicted with the existing federal system establishing when it is appropriate to arrest a foreign national in connection with a removal matter. The Arizona law, therefore, was deemed to create an obstacle to the existing federal law on this matter.

Portion Upheld – Authority to Verify Legal Status

The portion of the Arizona law that was upheld is, perhaps, the most well known provision. It has been referred to as “papers, please.” Under these provisions, police in Arizona are allowed to check the immigration status of individuals whom they stop, detain, or arrest if there is reasonable suspicion that the individuals are unlawfully present in the United States. Additionally; the provision requires Arizona police to obtain verification from the federal government of the immigration status of all arrestees prior to release.

The Court did not foreclose the possibility that these provisions may be successfully challenged at a later time. The open issue is how these provisions will operate in practice. The Court upheld these provisions, but primarily because it is conceivable that Arizona has put sufficient protections and limitations in place to avoid civil rights and other constitutional violations feared by opponents.

The Court simply found that, at this stage, it is not clear that the provisions are preempted. For the required status check for arrestees, the question will ultimately depend upon how long it takes Arizona to obtain the verification of immigration status for arrestees (that is, whether this step will result in extended detentions).

For the verification of those who are stopped or detained or arrested, based upon reasonable suspicion, the question depends upon whether this is carried out without violating federal laws regarding considerations of race, color, or national origin. These provisions may be challenged once there are some real world experiences, rather than simply hypothetical arguments.

Critics Concerned with Upholding of this Section

Some critics are concerned about racial profiling and the risk for those who “look foreign,” as this portion of the law was not ruled as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. There may be other legal challenges to this law in Arizona and other states that have passed similar laws.


While many hoped that all four provisions of the Arizona law would be struck down, the decision is a positive step against state efforts to get involved with U.S. immigration law issues. While the Court acknowledged the impact of immigration policy and enforcement matters on the states, there are certain areas that are not appropriate for state control. Other states have attempted or are considering efforts similar to Arizona’s. The Court’s decision should chill some of those efforts.

We at the Murthy Law Firm note that, while the Arizona law targets undocumented foreign nationals, it impacts all immigrants and even native-born U.S. citizens. States are reacting to federal inaction in an effort to control U.S. borders. This frustration, combined with politics, has led to extreme “solutions,” such as S.B. 1070. Such reactions have repercussions for everyone. Even those legally in the United States cannot always prove their status immediately. Many people fear traveling to or living in Arizona for this reason. Hopefully, the Court’s message to the states is clear: their authority over immigration matters is limited under the U.S. Constitution.

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Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.