ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. And we begin this hour with the Supreme Court, scene of yet another legal showdown today on a hot political topic. Last month it was President Obama's health care law. Today it was immigration. The court heard arguments on a controversial Arizona law that targets illegal immigrants. A federal court last year blocked enforcement of key sections of the law, including the so-called show-me-your-papers provisions. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has this report.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: For a case that's about show-me-your-papers, it was more than a little odd that the Supreme Court police, for the first time anyone can recall, were asking reporters to show their IDs to get into the area where TV cameras routinely set up, and that police then refused to allow lawyers and principals involved in the case to come over to the microphones. Even Arizona Governor Jan Brewer was barred from the press gaggle.
Finally, after a near insurrection from the press corps, the court cops relented. Just how political this case is was quickly apparent when Brewer, accompanied by a close Romney adviser, accused the Obama administration of challenging the Arizona law for political purposes.
GOVERNOR JAN BREWER: This is an election year, and I believe that it was staged. And they're playing to the Latino community.
TOTENBERG: Much of the argument focused on the sections of the law that require all state and local enforcement officers, upon reasonable suspicion, to detain anyone they stop or arrest for any reason no matter how minor, until the immigration status of that person can be determined. Arizona's lawyer, Paul Clement, faced his first question from the court's only Hispanic justice, Sonya Sotomayor: Suppose the federal government says yes, he's an illegal, but we don't want to detain him.
Answer: The officer would then determine whether the individual has violated any state law, and if not, he's released. Justice Kennedy: If it takes two weeks to make the determination as to whether the individual is deportable, can he be held by the state for the whole period of time? Answer: There's always constitutional limits. Justice Breyer: Can you represent to us that the individual would not stay in jail under this law longer than he would without the law? Answer: No.
Justice Alito observed that a U.S. citizens who's stopped cannot prove that he's a citizen, since there's no federal database of citizens. We're told, Alito added, that there are some important categories of aliens with pending immigration applications - for example, those seeking asylum, people that nobody would think should be removed. The data check would show these people to be in removal proceedings. Next up to the lectern was Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, representing the federal government in its challenge to the Arizona law.
But before he could speak, Chief Justice Roberts said he would like to clear up at the outset what the case is not about. No part of your argument has to do with racial or ethic profiling, does it? No, replied Verrilli. That's what makes the challenge to the show-me-your-papers provisions so difficult. The government has brought what's known as a facial challenge, meaning that it claims the law is unconstitutional in all its applications. And while some of the justices did seem to agree that other parts of the law may be in direct conflict with the federal law, they seemed more skeptical about the challenge to the show-me-your-papers provisions.
Justice Scalia: Arizona is not trying to kick out anybody the federal government has not already said does not belong here. Lawyer Verrilli responded that given the number of people illegally in the country, the federal government has to set priorities, and those priorities focus on dangerous criminals, gangs, drug cartels and suspected terrorists. Arizona, he said, is trying to change those policies with a program of mass incarceration. Chief Justice Roberts: Well, let's say Arizona has a different set of priorities. Answer: The priorities have to be set at the national level because it's the whole country and not an individual state that pays the price.
Chief Justice Roberts suggested that all the state's doing is notifying the federal government when somebody is illegally in the country, and then it's up to the federal government whether to prosecute or to deport these people. Not so, countered Verrilli. The state says to the federal government, if you're not going to remove them, we're going to prosecute them under state law for being in the country illegally. Chief Justice Roberts: It seems to me the federal government doesn't want to know who's here illegally.
That's not right, replied Verrilli. Arizona's law doesn't help. It hinders the mutual enforcement of federal priorities, flooding the system with minor cases, allowing big ones to fall through the cracks and making the federal government accountable for state priorities. Justice Kennedy: You're saying the government has a legitimate interest in not enforcing the laws. Justice Sotomayor: You can see your argument isn't really selling well, so what else have you got?
Verrilli listed the various categories of people who would not be able to prove they're in the country legally. Victims of spousal abuse, victims of human trafficking, witnesses to crimes, and those seeking asylum. All of these people have valid claims to being here, but until their applications are approved, they are in technical violation of the federal law and thus could be prosecuted under the Arizona law for being in the country illegally. Indeed, Verrilli noted that the federal government often keeps information secret about these people to protect them from retaliation. But that very secrecy could well land them in an Arizona prison.
Finally, he argued that Arizona's law could compromise the president's conduct of foreign relations. Arizona, he said, is engaging in mass incarceration under this law, a system that will antagonize important allies like Mexico on our border. Outside on the court steps afterwards, Arizona's governor was asked if in fact the state had plans for a mass incarceration of the estimated 400,000 illegal immigrants in her state. She paused for quite a long while and then replied...
BREWER: If they're breaking the law, there's that possibility, I would assume.
TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.