On June 25, 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled that certain key provisions of Arizona’s controversial immigration law (known as SB-1070) were unconstitutional, while upholding just one of its provisions. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion (PDF).
To understand how the law may or may not affect foreign physicians working in the United States–and in Arizona specifically–it is important to first have an overview of the Supreme Court’s mixed decision in the case. The sections of the Arizona immigration law that were struck down by the Supreme Court were as follows:
- SB-1070: Failing to obtain and carry federal immigration registration documents is a crime.
Supreme Court: “Permitting the state to impose its own penalties for the federal offenses here would conflict with the careful framework Congress adopted.”
- SB-1070: It is a crime for undocumented immigrants to work or apply for work.
Supreme Court: Federal law imposes civil penalties, not criminal penalties, for undocumented immigrants who engage in unauthorized work. Although the Arizona law “attempts to achieve one of the same goals as federal law–the deterrence of unlawful employment–it involves a conflict in the method of enforcement.”
- SB-1070: Warrantless arrests are authorized when there is probable cause to believe a person has committed an offense warranting deportation.
Supreme Court: Under federal law, an administrative document is issued when a non-citizen is subject to deportation. The U.S. Attorney General has discretion to authorize an arrest pending a removal decision. The Arizona law authorizes arrests without federal input. “The result could be unnecessary harassment of some aliens (for instance, a veteran, college student, or someone assisting with a criminal investigation) whom federal officials determine should not be removed.”
In the high court’s opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote that it is “fundamental that foreign countries concerned about the status, safety, and security of their nationals in the United States must be able to confer and communicate on this subject with one national sovereign, not the 50 separate states. . . . 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.”
The provision of the Arizona immigration law that was upheld by the Supreme Court is as follows:
- SB-1070: State and local police are authorized to check the immigration status of people who are lawfully stopped, detained, or arrested, if there is a reasonable suspicion that the individual is in the United States illegally.
Supreme Court: “At this stage, without the benefit of a definitive interpretation from the state courts, it would be inappropriate to assume [the status-check provision] will be construed in a way that creates a conflict with federal law. . . .This opinion does not foreclose other pre-emption and constitutional challenges to the law as interpreted and applied after it goes into effect.”
William T. Robinson III, president of the American Bar Association (ABA), in a press release pertaining to the ruling, wrote the following regarding the provision of the Arizona law upheld by the Supreme Court: “In light of the court’s ruling that upholds immigration status checks by state law-enforcement officials . . . that are conducted consistent with federal immigration and civil rights laws, the ABA calls on authorities to avoid unnecessary, prolonged detention of individuals who are lawfully present in the United States.”