Supreme Court Puts Immigration Reform Squarely on Congress' Shoulders

Experts say Congress is unlikely to act on immigration reform before 2012 election.


The Supreme Court struck down key provisions of Arizona's immigration law Monday, effectively turning the issue of comprehensive immigration reform over to the Congress. But in an election year, what, if anything, can the gridlocked body really accomplish?

"The Supreme Court decision puts the onus back on Congress, but it doesn't dissolve the political and ideological differences that were keeping Republicans and Democrats from coming to a melding of the minds on immigration in the first place," says Sarah Binder, a senior fellow on Congress at the Brookings Institution.

Vermont Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called on Congress to work together Monday following the announcement saying, "A patchwork of conflicting immigration laws is not a sustainable result."

"Congress must act to make the lasting improvement our system needs. " Leahy said. "I hope today's decision will encourage congressional Republicans to join with us to enact comprehensive immigration reform."

Republicans and Democrats harbor strong and distinct positions on immigration reform and experts agree those differences are unlikely to be legislatively resolved with an election looming, especially when Latino voters could be the key to victory.

[See a Collection of Cartoons on Illegal Immigration.]

Instead, experts are betting Congress takes the decision and turns it into a political tug of war.

"The parties almost prefer to have an issue rather than a solution," Binder says. "They would rather cast blame on their opponents."

Jon Turley, a constitutional law expert at George Washington University, says Congress will be taking cues from GOP nominee Mitt Romney's and President Barack Obama's 2012 election campaigns.

"Congress is always trying to improve the position of the respective candidates," he says.

While the Supreme Court struck down three of the four key provisions of Arizona's immigration law, the court upheld one of the most controversial pieces of the bill, the statute that allows authorities to ask for someone's immigration papers if they suspect he or she is an illegal immigrant.

The ruling left the door open for legislators to step in and regulate that statute.

"The Obama administration has every incentive in the world to push Democrats to seek a [repeal] of the final part of the bill," Turley says. "Having an immigration fight in the Senate works well with the Obama strategy to earn the Latino vote."

Turley says Republicans will likely keep their distance from engaging in this fight as Romney tries to balance his need for the Latino votes with his party's tradition of strict immigration policies. He also argues that Romney might signal to Congress that he is better off ditching the Latino vote and courting independents, who might be in favor of tougher immigration laws in the end.

A CNN/ORC poll released in early June showed 75 percent of Americans were in favor of Arizona's controversial legislation. [SCOTUS: 3 of 4 Provisions in Ariz. Immigration Law Invalid.]

"We could see Republicans engaging in conversations if the Romney campaign decided they have lost the battle for Hispanic votes," Turley says. "This opinion is a huge boom for President Obama and now Romney might have to tap to the right, where he would need the help of Congress."

But as the debate takes shape on Capitol Hill, Sheri Steisel, Director of the Human Services Committee for the National Conference of State Legislatures, says states are the real losers in Congress' inability come to an agreement on comprehensive immigration reform.

"In the meantime, states have been left with the cost and compromises," Steisel says. "This is an issue that requires bipartisan compromise. This is an issue where we hope that Congress and the administration can work together to enact the resolution. The lack of a decision hurts. The court case doesn't change that."

Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, expressed disappointment in the Supreme Court's decision, arguing that now states have little control over protecting their own citizens.