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Supreme Court's Ruling in Arizona Immigration Case Affirms Federal Primacy in Immigration Policy, MPI Experts Say
Press Release
Monday, June 25, 2012

Supreme Court's Ruling in Arizona Immigration Case Affirms Federal Primacy in Immigration Policy, MPI Experts Say

WASHINGTON — With today's ruling in Arizona et al v. United States, the Supreme Court struck down three provisions of Arizona's SB 1070 law, allowing to stand the section that requires police officers to check the immigration status of people they stop.

Migration Policy Institute (MPI) experts offered the following statements:

  • Doris Meissner, Senior Fellow and Director of MPI's U.S. Immigration Policy Program, who served as Commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) from 1993-2000:

    “This ruling reconfirms the long-held principle of federal primacy in immigration policy. It should largely put to rest questions about the respective roles of state and federal authorities in enforcing the nation’s immigration laws and raises important cautions for the policing provisions that Arizona enacted. The decision underscores yet again the need for Washington to respond to legitimate state concerns and take up the challenge of creating an orderly and fair immigration law.”

  • James W. Ziglar, MPI Senior Fellow who served as INS Commissioner from 2001-2002. Ziglar, who began his law career as a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, taught immigration and constitutional law at the George Washington University Law Center:

    “The Supreme Court has confirmed a long-established principle in federal immigration law, policy and history that America must speak and act as one country and one people."

    "The justices have by and large followed precedent. Even the portion of the opinion that upholds the requirement that police check immigration status does so in a very cautionary way. The court suggests that an overly broad implementation of Section 2(B) could cause that provision to be constitutionally defective.”

    “In the closing part of its opinion, the court reflected on America’s history as a nation of immigrants and said: ‘Immigration policy shapes the destiny of the nation …. The history of the United States is in part made of the stories, talents and lasting contributions of those who crossed oceans and deserts to come here.’ ”

  • Michael Fix, an attorney who is MPI Senior Vice President and Co-Director of the National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy:

    “What the Supreme Court is saying is that the states can’t impose on unauthorized immigrants more punitive sanctions than the federal government. They can, however, adjust the intensity of their permitted enforcement activity — in this case compelling state and local officers, during the course of an otherwise authorized stop, to inquire into the immigration status of those whom they suspect to be in the country illegally."

    “While this ruling imposes some restrictions on the states, it can still lead to quite differing climates of reception for immigrant populations depending on how states interpret and embrace this ruling.”

  • Muzaffar Chishti , Director of MPI's office at New York University School of Law. Chishti is an immigration attorney and has focused much of his research in recent years on state- and local-level activity on immigration enforcement. Chishti also co-authors the monthly Policy Beat feature of the Migration Information Source, MPI's online journal, which has examined issues surrounding SB 1070.

    “Even though the Supreme Court has allowed the most controversial section of the Arizona law to go forward, it has left open the possibility that the provision could also fall if its implementation conflicts with federal law. However, in the interim, the ruling could lead to many citizens and non-citizens facing adverse impacts at the state and local level.” 

(Meissner and Ziglar, in their capacity as former INS Commissioners, submitted an amici brief to the Supreme Court in the Arizona case, which the court cited in its opinion. The amici brief can be read here.)

To reach an MPI expert for comment, please contact MPI Communications Director Michelle Mittelstadt at 202-266-1910 or [email protected].


The Migration Policy Institute is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. For more on MPI, please visit www.migrationpolicy.org.