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Immigration ruling leaves open questions

The big decision comes Thursday, but on Monday the U.S. Supreme Court added some spice to the national dialogue with its decision on the constitutionality of Arizona's immigration law.

The federal government challenged the Arizona law, saying it infringed on the U.S. government's power of regulating and enforcing immigration laws. Arizona officials said the law was necessary because the federal government wasn't doing an adequate job and its state government had the right to secure its citizens.

When the smoke cleared, the high court issued a split opinion.

The justices upheld the state's right to require that a non-federal law enforcement official in Arizona question an individual's immigration status if that official has a reasonable suspicion that the person is in the United States illegally.

The justices also tossed out three provisions of the law that required immigrants to obtain or carry registration papers, made it a state criminal violation if an illegal immigrant sought work or held a job in Arizona, and allowed law enforcement officials to arrest a person suspected of being illegal immigrant without first obtaining an arrest warrant.

The court was unanimous in upholding the single provision. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor agreed with all of Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas would have allowed all the challenged provisions to take effect. Justice Samuel Alito would have allowed police to arrest undocumented immigrants who seek work, and also make arrests without warrants. Justice Elena Kagan, who had worked for the Obama administration, recused herself from the decision.

The decision still leaves some unanswered questions for other states that have adopted illegal immigration laws, including Georgia. Parts of our state's law is being reviewed in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens' office also filed an amicus brief on behalf of Arizona in the case that was announced Monday.

"I am pleased that the Supreme Court recognizes that states have an important role to play in upholding the law," Olens said Monday. "I look forward to further proceedings in the Eleventh Circuit regarding Georgia's immigration reform law in the light of this decision."

Democratic leaders in Georgia reflected the national Democratic view in their reaction to the ruling.

"The Supreme Court today issued a troubling ruling that encourages racial profiling, and we must remain vigilant that this does not happen in Georgia," said Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams said. "We are very disappointed by the 'show your papers' provision, which returns us to a terrible time in our state's history. Human rights must be protected for all -- regardless of race or status. This ruling allows racial profiling to resume in Georgia. The fact that it is now legal does not make it right, and we call upon the Governor and the GOP leadership to repeal this disturbing trend in our state's lawmaking."

For proponents of the state-level illegal immigrant law, the Supreme Court affirmed that states have a right to question whether someone is in the country illegally, though they can't enforce minor immigration violations. The unanswered question, however, is what constitutes "reasonable suspicion" on the part of state and local law enforcement officers. That answer will be found in future legal challenges.

Meanwhile, both political camps have some new fodder for their election campaigns with the promise of an even bigger, more divisive issue emerging Thursday, which is when the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the legality of President Obama's health care reform law.

-- The Albany Herald Editorial Board