The Supreme Court is almost certainly going to uphold the most controversial portion of Arizona’s 2010 immigration law, S.B. 1070 — the requirement that local police check the immigration status of people stopped for other offenses if there’s reason to believe they are illegal immigrants. The U.S. Justice Department’s case is based on the contention that Congress has prohibited states from assisting federal authorities in enforcing immigration law in this way — a claim that is transparently false and that even the pro-Obama members of the court were not buying during last month’s oral arguments.
But just because something is constitutional — i.e., not in conflict with our nation’s basic law — doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good policy, and that’s the more important debate. Arizona is only one of many states — including Alabama, Indiana, Georgia, and Utah — to pass laws designed to help enforce federal immigration laws. The premise of all these laws is “attrition through enforcement” or “self-deportation” — getting illegal immigrants to leave on their own by making it impractical for them to continue living here by, for instance, ensuring that they can’t get jobs, can’t get driver’s licenses, and can’t go through the day without their illegal presence being noticed. The goal is to reduce the illegal population over time as an alternative to amnesty, on the one hand, or unworkable mass roundups, on the other.