The Supreme Court isn’t officially determining if Arizona’s controversial immigration law, which mandates police determine the immigration status of people who they stop for other reasons and suspect are also in the country illegally, constitutes racial profiling. The federal government filed suit against Arizona on the grounds that the state overstepped its boundaries in passing such the immigration provision two years ago.
But the Court’s decision on the law, which will be debated in oral arguments on Wednesday, could play a powerful role in the the national debate on racial profiling, which has been renewed by the controversy over the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Opponents of the Arizona law liken it to controversial policies such as the “stop and frisk” techniques used by the NYPD, whose effects are often disproportionately felt by blacks, Latinos and Arab-Americans. They say it essentially demands police in Arizona ask Latinos in the state for identification.
The coalition that has opposed the law, many of whom also have protested the Martin shooting, say that the Court upholding the Arizona provision would in effect sanction the expanded use of these policies around the country. (It remains unclear if Martin was specifically a victim of racial profiling, but civil rights activists argue George Zimmerman likely suspected him of wrong-doing because of his race.)
The court striking down the law, on the other hand, would likely stop other states from passing similar provisions.
“if the court comes down in favor of SB1070, then it just further pushes law enforcement to specifically target communities of color,” said Vanita Gupta, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, referring to the formal name of the Arizona provision.
Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Utah have all passed similar laws to the one in Arizona. While some Republicans oppose the laws, the divide on them has been largely on party-lines. President Obama and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer memorably debated his opposition to the Arizona law on an airplane tarmac in January, with the photo of Brewer pointing her finger near Obama’s face quickly turning into a political firestorm.
The decision, expected to announced in June, is likely to play a role in the presidential campaign no matter how the Supreme Court rules. While Obama has strongly opposed the law, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has called it a “model” for other states.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr