- The Washington Times
Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Supreme Court has laid down a few hard rules about what states can and can’t do to deal with the wave of illegal immigrants within their borders. But the issue remains murkier than ever because Congress can’t agree on needed reforms.

If the high court’s ruling Monday on Arizona’s stringent immigration law tells us anything about this messy issue, it underscores the need for a set of new federal rules. We need a fail-safe system to deal with the more than 11 million illegals who live here - one that helps, not hurts, our economy and fosters stronger economic growth.

No one, however, expects Congress to address this issue in an election year. It remains a political football that President Obama has played with aggressively in a narrowly focused campaign aimed at appealing to special-interest groups to distract attention from his failures on the economy and jobs.

Illegal immigration remains a top political issue among Hispanics and Latinos, but it’s not the dominant issue it was in years past among the broader electorate.

In March, the Gallup Poll presented a list of 15 issues to Americans in a nationwide survey, asking if they “personally worry about this problem a great deal, a fair amount, only a little, or not at all?”

The economy was at the top of respondents’ concerns, with 71 percent saying “a great deal” and 22 percent saying a “fair amount.” Then came gas prices, federal spending, deficits and debt, health care, and unemployment, followed by other issues, ranging from Social Security to terrorism.

Illegal immigration was second from the bottom. Just 34 percent said they worried about it “a great deal,” 23 percent said “a fair amount,” and 41 percent said “little or not at all.”

All of this speaks volumes about how disconnected Mr. Obama is from the overriding concerns of the American people.

The vast majority of voters are deeply worried about a slowing economy that’s drifting toward a recession, federal spending and trillion-dollar budget deficits, and jobs.

But in the fourth year of his presidency, Mr. Obama suddenly is focused on how he can win the Hispanic vote by halting deportations of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants between the ages of 16 and 30.

Meantime, the Supreme Court has settled a few issues that will affect states that have passed immigration laws similar to Arizona’s.

Among the prohibitions the court ordered: States may not make it a crime (in Arizona’s case, a misdemeanor) for illegal immigrants to apply for work, or make it a crime if legal residents fail to carry their papers with them.

The court also ruled against a provision under which a state officer, “without a warrant, may arrest a person if the officer has probable cause to believe … [that person] has committed any public offense that makes [him] removable from the United States.”

In each of these cases, the court said the provisions imposed penalties that were in conflict with what Congress has adopted, or encroached on the removal process that “is entrusted to the discretion of the federal government.”

It did uphold the “show me papers” provision, which requires police officers to verify the immigration status of anyone they detain and suspect may be here illegally.

While this provision has not been implemented pending judicial review, the court warned, “This opinion does not foreclose other pre-emption and constitutional challenges to the law as interpreted and applied after it goes into effect.”

In the final analysis, the court reinforced a central tenet in the long-running debate over immigration policy: The federal government has primary responsibility over immigration law and policy.

No doubt there will be further legal challenges on immigration law in the future until Congress is ready to take responsibility for this issue and the large number of illegal residents who work and have raised families here.

Clearly, as the stalemate in Congress attests, we are not going to deport all the illegal immigrants who live here.

The argument for blanket amnesty is a strong one and has prevented any solution from gaining majority support. This has resulted in de facto amnesty that will continue for the foreseeable future.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, has taken a hard-line stance against any reforms that would allow some illegals to remain in our country.

But Mr. Romney seems to have softened his position lately, suggesting he may support letting children whose parents brought them here when they were very young remain here. He also may support giving a path to citizenship to some illegals who join the U.S. military.

There also is a growing movement among some of the states to allow high school graduates who are the children of illegals to attend college at in-state tuition rates.

Texas enacted a program that allows this, and its GOP-dominated legislature is as conservative as it gets in state politics. Of course, it didn’t help Gov. Rick Perry’s brief presidential bid earlier this year, though other issues also were responsible for ending his candidacy.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also embraced residency reforms for illegal immigrants who have lived here for many years, raised a family, paid their bills and have spotless records. Apparently, it didn’t hurt him in the early primaries when he briefly soared in the polls.

As things stand now, Republicans are going to lose the lion’s share of the large Hispanic vote in November, which is going to Mr. Obama in key swing states that should be GOP territory. This could be the critical factor that decides who sits in the White House for the next four years.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and former chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.