WASHINGTON - A divided Supreme Court threw out major parts of Arizona's tough crackdown on undocumented immigrants Monday in a ruling sure to reverberate through the November elections.
The justices unanimously approved the law's most-discussed provision - requiring police to check the immigration status of those they stop for other reasons - but limited the consequences.
Although upholding the "show me your papers" requirement, which some critics say could lead to ethnic profiling, the justices struck down provisions that created state crimes allowing local police to arrest people for federal immigration violations. And they warned against detaining people for any prolonged period merely for not having proper immigration papers.
The mixed outcome vindicated the Obama administration's aggressive challenge to laws passed by Arizona and the five states - Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah - that followed its lead in attempting to deal with undocumented immigration in the face of federal inaction on comprehensive reform.
The administration had assailed the Arizona law as an unconstitutional intrusion into an area under federal control.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined in his majority opinion by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts as well as three liberal justices, said the impasse in Washington over immigration reform did not justify state intrusion.
"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," Kennedy said. That part of the ruling drew a caustic dissent from Justice Antonin Scalia, who said the Obama administration doesn't want to enforce existing immigration law.
The Arizona decision landed in the middle of a presidential campaign in which President Barack Obama has been heavily courting Hispanic voters and Republican challenger Mitt Romney has been struggling to win Hispanic support. During a drawn-out primary campaign, Romney and the other GOP candidates mostly embraced a hard line on the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, though Romney has lately taken a softer tone.
Obama said he was pleased that the court struck down key parts of Arizona's law, but was concerned about what the high court left intact.
"No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like," Obama said. He said police in Arizona should not enforce the provision in a way that undermines civil rights.
"What this decision makes unmistakably clear is that Congress must act on comprehensive immigration reform," he said.
Romney did not immediately comment on the substance of the court decision Monday, but he said, "I believe that each state has the duty - and the right - to secure our borders and preserve the rule of law, particularly when the federal government has failed to meet its responsibilities."
In his majority opinion, Kennedy distinguished the "show me your papers" provision from the other challenged parts of the law by pointing out that consultation between local and federal authorities already is an important part of the immigration system. Local and state police called on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement's support center more than 1 million times in 2009 alone, he said.
Kennedy said the law could - and he suggested it should - be read to avoid concerns that status checks could lead to prolonged detention.
Justice Elena Kagan sat out the case because of her previous work in the Obama administration.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said the ruling was a victory for people who believe in the responsibility of states to defend their residents. The case "has always been about our support for the rule of law," she said. "That means every law, including those against both illegal immigration and racial profiling. Law enforcement will be held accountable should this statute be misused in a fashion that violates an individual's civil rights."
Civil rights groups that separately challenged the law over concerns that it would lead to rights abuses said their lawsuit would go on.
Even with the limitations the high court put on Arizona, the immigration status check still is "an invitation to racial profiling," said American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Omar Jadwat.
Carlos Beltran, looking for day labor work Monday in the Phoenix area, said he was glad to hear the court struck down most of the law.
"We can still be here today, find a job and go home and tell our wives we have something to eat tonight," said Beltran, who was born in the United States, but whose parents are undocumented immigrants.
The Obama administration sued to block the Arizona law soon after its enactment two years ago. Federal courts had refused to let the four key provisions take effect.
The other states adopted variations on Arizona's law. Parts of those laws also were on hold pending the outcome of the Supreme Court case.
Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor joined all of Kennedy's opinion.
Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas would have allowed all the challenged provisions to take effect. Justice Samuel Alito would have allowed police to arrest immigrants without papers who seek work, and also to make arrests without warrants.
* * *
What they said
"... The sound exercise of national power over immigration depends on the nation's meeting its responsibility to base its laws on a political will informed by searching, thoughtful, rational civic discourse."
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority
"No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like."
President Barack Obama
"Today is a day when the key components of our efforts to protect the citizens of Arizona, to take up the fight against illegal immigration in a balanced and constitutional way, has unanimously been vindicated by the highest court in the land."
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer
"Given the failure of the immigration policy in this country, I would have preferred to see the Supreme Court give more latitude to states, not less."
Mitt Romney, presumed GOP presidential nominee