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Mitt Romney's Immigration Reform 'Model' Partly Struck Down, But Harm Will Continue

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Mitt Romney speaks at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Conference in Buena Vista, Florida.
Gerardo Mora/Getty Images

Arizona's abhorrent immigration law – which Mitt Romney recently praised as a "model" for the nation – has been largely struck down by the Supreme Court, in a 5-3 ruling joined by arch-conservative Chief Justice John Roberts.

President Obama applauded the decision, saying: "I agree with the Court that individuals cannot be detained solely to verify their immigration status. No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like."

Previously, Romney had vowed to "support states like ... Arizona" and their "forceful steps to curtail illegal immigration." But he didn't address the substance of the court's decision today, prefering to slam his rival in a boilerplate statement: "President Obama has failed to provide any leadership on immigration."

The most important part of today's judgment? The court banned Arizona police from indefinitely detaining a suspected undocumented worker to simply to determine that person's immigration status.

However, the ruling let stand, for now, one of the most controversial provisions of the law. Arizona police can continue to demand immigration documents from people they've stopped, the court ruled, because the "papers, please" measure does not interfere with the supremacy of federal immigration enforcement. "They kept the pointy end of the sword," Ali Noorani, head of the National Immigration Forum, told Rollingstone.com.

The Supremes did not address whether asking Latino-looking people for their documents is a violation of the constitution's equal protection guarantees. That makes future challenges to the law likely, but it kicks a definitive resolution down the road. "The Court has the luxury of being able to take its time," says Angela Maria Kelley, a fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress. "But for communities affected by this in their day to day life, in a state like Arizona, with a Sheriff like Joe Arpaio, it's hell."

Rounding out the ruling, the court struck down provisions making it a crime for undocumented immigrants to work or to seek work. Arizona authorities can also no longer arrest, without a warrant, people suspected of violations of federal immigration law that would require deportation.  

The Supreme Court decision is a blow to Romney who, back in January, delighted in the endorsement of Kris Kobach, co-author of the Arizona law, and the intellectual architect of the draconian state-by-state approach immigration reform.

“I’m so proud to earn Kris’s support,” Romney said, praising him for his willingness to "stand up for the rule of law." Calling Kobach a member of his "team" Romney added: “Kris has been a true leader on securing our borders and stopping the flow of illegal immigration into this country. We need more conservative leaders like Kris."

Kobach was even more enthusiastic about Romney: "Illegal immigration is a nightmare for America’s economy and America’s national security," he said. "Romney is the candidate who will finally secure the borders and put a stop to the magnets, like in-state tuition, that encourage illegal aliens to remain in our country unlawfully. He is also the candidate who will stand shoulder to shoulder with the states that are fighting to restore the rule of law.

"I am pleased," Kobach said, "to stand with this true conservative."

Meanwhile, we can expect other states, starting with Missouri, Mississippi, and Virginia, to follow the Arizona model, carefully crafting immigration laws to skirt legal thickets but making themselves unmistakably hostile to people of color. "The court's given them clarity in what they can and can't do, and they'll likely take the ruling as a green light," says CAP's Kelley.

"It could start tearing at the fabric of the nation."

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