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President Obama at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (Photo: Pete Souza)

This week’s oral arguments in the Supreme Court concerning SB 1070 were highly anti-climactic, at least with regards to their political implications. It’s a toss up as to whether the court will vote to uphold key provisions of the law or if the court will split—as a result of Justice Kagan’s recusal—and the provisional blocks put into place by the lower courts will hold. Either way, the Obama administration has a compelling narrative to mobilize the Latino community in the lead up to November’s election.

The arguments heard earlier this week revolved around whether Arizona was helping or hindering the enforcement of federal immigration laws. Arizona argued that they simply wanted to act as a cooperating junior partner. The administration argued that Arizona was usurping federal powers and that this meddling would interfere with their law enforcement efforts. The 80 minutes of oral arguments dealt with the narrow issue of state versus federal powers. Save for a warning from Chief Justice Roberts to the Solicitor General that the issue of racial profile not be brought up, the question of racial profiling was absent.

Unlike the Supreme Court, the President is concerned with the very real and tangible effect of racial profiling. While his administration is also concerned with constitutional pre-emption they have not lost sight of the human face of a law that gives broad in-roads to civil rights violations. The human and civil rights of Arizonans and in particular Latinos in Arizona are put in peril with the “show me your papers” provision. Since SB 1070 was signed into law the Obama administration has challenged the law up to the highest court in the land where it unfolded this week.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer had a big smile on her face upon exiting the high court. In her view, it was “a great day in court” for Arizona. The governor indeed had cause for her grin. Justices Scalia and Roberts early on signaled their skepticism for the most controversial part of the law, the “show me your papers” provision requiring local law enforcement officials to ask for documentation status if there is reasonable suspicion about a person’s status. Justice Thomas as is his custom did not say a word, but his judicial history places him squarely with Justices Scalia and Roberts.

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Even the more liberal justices, in particular Justice Sotomayor did not express clear agreement with the administration’s arguments. While the Robert’s court may decide in favor or Arizona there is the possibility that either Justice Kennedy or Alito may side with his more liberal colleagues. If that is the case then there could be a split 4-4 decision. A split decision would mean that the rulings from the lower court’s blocking the contested provisions would be upheld.

We will not know until late June where the justices stand on SB 1070. Their decision will have an effect not only on the day-to-day lives of Arizonans but of all Latinos in this country.

However, the Supreme Court’s decision will not have a positive or negative effect on the president. The decision is not a referendum on the president, meaning that a win for Arizona means a loss for the President. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Arizona, then the President wins by harnessing the Latino electorate’s frustration and firing them up even more to get to the polls in November. If blocks to SB 1070 are upheld the President Obama also wins. He can use the win to mobilize the Latino electorate by pointing to a tangible defensive move.

Regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision, the President’s re-election campaign will be able to frame the issue to mobilize the electorate. But perhaps the most important Latino electorate win for the President is not directly tied to Arizona. The SB 1070 controversy deflected attention from the President’s Latino Achilles Heel – not having proposed comprehensive immigration reform as he had promised.

victoria defrancesco soto

Victoria Defrancesco Soto

Posted: Friday, 27 April 2012