In Pennsylvania, conflicting opinions on immigration ruling

Mayor Nutter said "papers, please" would distract police.
Mayor Nutter said "papers, please" would distract police.
Posted: June 27, 2012

The immigration-reform debate has hardly been as fiery in this region as elsewhere in the nation, but even here, the U.S. Supreme Court's complex decision Monday in Arizona v. United States brought a rush of divergent opinion on the ruling's impact.

The justices rejected most of Arizona's tough 2010 border-control law but affirmed the "papers, please" provision, which empowers police to investigate the residency status of anyone they stop or arrest and suspect of being undocumented.

The ruling appeared to have something for everyone.

In Harrisburg, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler), chief architect of legislation to tightly restrict immigration in Pennsylvania, interpreted the decision as a "significant victory" for his cause and "the green light I was looking for."

"I have an Arizona-model bill as part of my National Security Begins at Home package," he said. "We had been holding off on attempting to move it" through the legislature, awaiting the court's pronouncement.

Now, he will tweak the bill and push it forward, he said. "We need to take the handcuffs off of law enforcement and put them on illegal aliens."

On the other side of the debate, advocates for immigrants also found support in the decision.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, the 1,309-member U.S. Conference of Mayors sided with the Justice Department when it sued to block the Arizona law. On Monday, its president, Mayor Nutter, said the group was pleased that the justices "struck down three troubling provisions."

Their decision "demonstrates that we cannot fix our broken immigration system on a state-by-state basis," he said in a statement.

But the mayors remain concerned that the "papers, please" provision will "compromise the ability of our local police departments to maintain public safety," he added, because officers will have to take time away from serious crimes to investigate immigration status.

Where Metcalfe sees a bright green light to push forward with restrictions, Erika Almiron, director of the Philadelphia immigrant advocacy group Juntos, sees amber.

She said Monday's decision was a sign the federal government is still riding herd on the states. "It is much more constrained than a green light," she said. "It's proceed with caution."

Legal experts said the court's majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, was rhetorically tight.

"There is something here for advocates of state action to work with," said Peter Spiro, a professor at the Temple University Beasley School of Law. "But three out of four provisions were struck down," and the court narrowly construed the remaining one.

"Arizona is saying it is unfriendly to illegal immigrants and that part of [its law] was left standing," Spiro said. "But in terms of its practical influence it was clearly defanged" because the rest of the court's opinion broadly validates "the near-exclusive federal power over immigration."

Spiro's Temple Law colleague Jan Ting, a former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization assistant commissioner and a prominent critic of illegal immigration, called the decision "a big setback" for proponents of Arizona's law. "The message to other states" is clear, he said: "No matter how bad it gets for you, you won't be allowed to do what Arizona tried."

Still, by not striking down the law in its entirety, he said, the court left open "a narrow window" for states and localities "such as Hazleton" to act.

In 2006, that north-central Pennsylvania town passed ordinances seeking to fine landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and denying business permits to companies that employ them. Legal challenges halted those laws before they could be enforced. Now, against the backdrop of the high court decision, a Philadelphia appeals court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the Hazleton case in August.

The Rev. Luis Cortes, president of Esperanza, a North Philadelphia-based national network of 12,000 Hispanic Evangelical congregations, said "papers, please" is fraught with risks for racial profiling and violations of civil rights, particularly for people of color.

"The Supreme Court has made it clear that the manner in which the measure is implemented will determine its viability in the long term," he said. "We fear that minority communities in Arizona will experience undue suffering in the process."

Ultimately, he said, the court's decision "underscores what we as immigration-reform advocates have been steadily repeating for many years: The responsibility for fixing our immigration policies and enforcement falls squarely on the shoulders of the federal government.

"Now that the affirmation of federal responsibility has been so clearly stated . . . we must not allow the issue to stagnate once again," he said. "It's time for Congress to get the job done."

Contact Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or

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