Tough immigration stance could cost Romney election


THE US SUPREME Court will today hear arguments in Arizona’s suit against the federal government for the right to maintain its own immigration policy.

The case highlights one of the most emotional issues in the US presidential campaign and could determine the November election by strengthening Hispanic voters’ rejection of the Republican candidate Mitt Romney. A Wall Street Journal-NBC poll found that 69 per cent of Hispanics support Barack Obama, compared to 22 per cent for Mr Romney. Mr Romney would need about 40 per cent of the Latino vote to win the election.

Arizona passed the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighbourhoods Act, known as Senate Bill 1070, two years ago. It requires local police to verify the immigration status of anyone who is stopped for a traffic offence, and to arrest them if they are suspected of being in the US illegally. SB 1070 also makes it a crime not to carry valid residence papers or to apply for work as an illegal alien.

Arizona appealed the suspension of the law by federal judges, all the way to the Supreme Court.

Five other states with conservative governments — Alabama, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah — have passed laws based on the Arizona text. Alabama’s law is even more draconian, requiring schools to collect data on the immigration status of children. A handful of other states have postponed enacting similar legislation pending the Supreme Court’s verdict.

The Obama administration argues that immigration policy is the prerogative of the federal government, not the states. “Arizona has adopted its own immigration policy, which focuses solely on maximum enforcement,” says the brief filed by solicitor general Donald Verrilli.

Under President Obama, authorities have concentrated on deporting “dangerous” immigrants, but have largely turned a blind eye to those who enter the country illegally. The administration has nonetheless deported a record number of immigrants, and disputes the central tenet of Arizona’s case: that it was forced to act because the federal government failed to prevent a “flood of unlawful cross-border traffic” that blighted Arizona with “illegal drugs, dangerous criminals and highly vulnerable persons”.

Arizona’s law prompted a backlash by civil and human rights groups. “The laws of both Arizona and Alabama seek to make life unliveable for unauthorised immigrants,” said Grace Meng of Human Rights Watch. If SB 1070 is upheld, Ms Meng said, “It will fuel human rights abuses against US citizens and legal residents, as well as unauthorised immigrants”. Arizona has lost $140 million in revenue from conventions that were cancelled in protest at the immigration law. In Georgia, which passed a law last year authorising police to detain and question illegal immigrants, farmers had to cut back on planting because they could not find labourers to harvest crops.

Foreign investors are also inclined to avoid states with strict immigration laws. Last November, a German executive for Mercedes-Benz, which has a plant employing thousands in Alabama, ended up in jail because he went out without his passport.

The immigration case has much in common with the Supreme Court’s review of President Obama’s healthcare reform Bill. Both decisions are expected in late June. Both pit solicitor general Verrilli, for the Obama administration, against the former Republican solicitor general Paul Clement. In both cases, conservative advocates of states’ rights accuse the federal government of over-reaching its constitutional powers.

But there is one fundamental difference. Opposition to ‘Obamacare’ has galvanised Republican voters, while tough immigration laws alienate Hispanic voters, who comprise one sixth of the electorate. If the conservative-leaning Supreme Court strikes down the healthcare Bill, it will hurt Mr Obama. If it upholds the Arizona law, it could help him defeat Mr Romney.

Mr Obama said the failure of the Dream Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for young people brought to the US illegally by their parents, was “maybe my biggest disappointment”. Mr Romney opposes the Dream Act and the federal government’s suspension of the Arizona law, which he called a “model” for the nation. His campaign later qualified the remark, saying Mr Romney referred only to the ‘e-verify’ database that would enable employers to check the immigration status of job-seekers.

A study by the Pew Hispanic Center published this week shows that the debate in the Supreme Court is becoming less relevant. Although 58 per cent of the estimated 11.2 million illegal immigrants in the US are Mexican, “The net migration flow from Mexico to the US has stopped and may have reversed,” says the report. After four decades during which one in 10 Mexicans — 12 million people — emigrated to the US, 1.4 million returned to their country between 2005 and 2010, the same number as entered the US during the same period.