What the Ruling on Arizona's Immigration Law Means

Mexican immigrant Luis Manuel along the U.S. border in Nogales, Mexico, after being deported from Arizona. John Moore / Getty Images

The controversy over Arizona's immigration law has flared up again. Yesterday, on the eve of the law's taking effect, U.S. district judge Susan Bolton blocked its most controversial elements—those compelling immigrants to carry their papers at all times and requiring officers to check the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally. It was a qualified, but forceful, victory for the measure's opponents.

So where do things go from here? Let's start with the legal aspect. Bolton essentially agreed with the Justice Department's argument against the measure: that it unconstitutionally infringes on the federal government's authority over immigration law. The fact that the judge granted a preliminary injunction was notable, says Crystal Williams of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "Those are hard to get," she says. "It says the case against [the law] is strong."

This is just the beginning, of course. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has made clear that the state will appeal Bolton's ruling. And the law's backers have vowed to take their fight all the way to the Supreme Court. That may be their best hope of a reversal of the latest ruling. After all, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Arizona, is considered the most liberal in the land. If the battle does reach the Supreme Court, it's hard to predict which side will prevail. Williams points out that the court as it's currently composed has yet to rule on state-versus-federal preemption issues. Its first opportunity will come in the next term, when it hears a case involving (yet again) an Arizona law, this time one requiring employers to check employees' immigration status.

So far, Arizona's measure has taken virtually the same path as Prop 187 did in California in the 1990s. That law sought to curb illegal immigrants' access to certain social services. It, too, was blocked before it could take effect. And it, too, was tossed out by a judge on the grounds that it inappropriately treaded on Uncle Sam's turf. (It was eventually gutted.)

Bolton's ruling will have ramifications far beyond Arizona, though. States around the country that are debating similar legislation—and there are many of them—have just received a sobering message. A federal judge has made clear that the courts aren't apt to look kindly on such laws. Given the dismaying economic picture in most states these days, how many of them will want to wage a costly legal battle with the federal government?

As for the politics of all this, the Arizona brouhaha has thrust immigration once again to the front of the political debate. That's not a clear win for either political party. Republicans will try to trumpet this as an example of the administration's heavy-handedness—stomping on a law that has significant public backing—and they'll use that argument to whip up the GOP base and the Tea Party crowd. Yet Democrats will use the controversy to try to galvanize Hispanic voters, whose support for President Obama has taken a slight dip recently. The administration took a bold stand in challenging the Arizona law, one they hope will translate into stronger Latino turnout in the midterms. Which party benefits most remains to be seen, but rest assured that we'll be hearing about this issue all the way to November.