Immigration reform back to square one

Members of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles hold a rally and vigil on Monday.

Story highlights

  • Supreme Court ruling leaves immigration reform virtually unchanged
  • Federal government is unwilling to remedy the immigration problem, says Justice Scalia
  • Congress last attempted immigration reform unsuccessfully in 2006
  • Congressional action on immigration is unlikely until after the election

After two years of protests, boycotts and lawsuits over Arizona's immigration law, Monday's Supreme Court decision leaves the state of immigration reform almost unchanged with states frustrated and Congress avoiding the debate.

"I would guess [Congress] won't touch this with a 10-foot pole until after they come back after the election," Charles H. Kuck, managing partner at Kuck Immigration Partners in Atlanta, told CNN.

The court's 5-3 ruling was a split decision, upholding the law's most controversial feature -- the "show your papers provision" that allows police to check a person's immigration status while enforcing other laws -- but also dismissing the Arizona's right to regulate immigration at the state level.

Court mostly rejects Arizona law; governor says 'heart' remains

Justice Antonin Scalia, in his dissenting opinion, sympathized with Arizona, which cited the federal government's inaction in controlling illegal immigration as part of the basis for its law.

"[Arizona's] citizens feel themselves under siege by large numbers of illegal immigrants who invade their property, strain their social services and even place their lives in jeopardy," Scalia wrote.

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He also used his dissenting opinion to take a swipe at the Obama administration, which earlier this month announced it would allow some young illegal immigrants to stay in the country if they met certain conditions.

    "Federal officials have been unable to remedy the problem, and indeed have recently shown that they are unwilling to do so," Scalia continued. "Thousands of Arizona's estimated 400,000 illegal immigrants -- including not just children but men and women under 30 -- are now assured immunity from enforcement, and will be able to compete openly with Arizona citizens for employment."

    It has been six years since Congress' last real effort to reform the federal immigration system and address the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

    Then-Sen. Arlen Specter introduced a bill co-sponsored by fellow Republicans Sam Brownback, Lindsey Graham, Chuck Hagel, Mel Martinez, John McCain and Democrat Ted Kennedy that contained an amnesty provision for illegal immigrants who had been in the country for a long period. But the bill couldn't get through the House, where the amnesty provision was a nonstarter.

    After another effort failed the following year, then-President George W. Bush expressed his disappointment that the effort failed.

    "Congress really needs to prove to the American people that it can come together on hard issues," Bush said.

    Most recently, a Senate version of the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for students in the country illegally, ended up stalling, and that left President Barack Obama to take matters into his own hands earlier this month.

    His action drew a rash of criticism from congressional Republicans who said the president used his directive to stop prosecution of some young illegal immigrants to get around the system.

    "Americans should be outraged that President Obama is planning to usurp the constitutional authority of the United States Congress and grant amnesty by edict to 1 million illegal aliens," said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, in response to Obama's announcement.

    With a bitterly split Congress, it's unlikely any action will be taken on immigration reform before the election.

    "I think it would be difficult to imagine that things would change dramatically and we would see congressional movement on this issue," Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said. But "...the longer we wait, the worse this situation becomes."

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    But that could be the case, depending on the outcome of not only the presidential race but also congressional races that will determine which party controls the House and Senate. The last immigration effort came in an atmosphere of far less partisanship and still failed after two years of grinding legislative work.

    Inaction on the issue will likely not sit well with Americans who overwhelmingly supported Arizona's immigration law. A CNN/ORC International poll taken in May showed more than half of Republicans, independents and Democrats favored the law.

    Republicans faulted Obama for his lack of action on immigration during the first two years in office when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.

    "President Obama had two years with full control with the Senate and the House. Why didn't he bring up illegal immigration?" said Rita Bonilla, a member of Secured Borders USA and an immigration activist for "You Don't Speak for Me!," which supports the Arizona immigration law.

    Mitt Romney, Obama's presumptive presidential opponent, criticized him again after the court's announcement for the same reason.

    "President Obama has failed to provide any leadership on immigration. This represents yet another broken promise by this president," Romney said in a statement. "As candidate Obama, he promised to present an immigration plan during his first year in office. But four years later, we are still waiting."

    But Obama, in a statement released Monday, indicated he was willing to work on immigration reform.

    "I will work with anyone in Congress who's willing to make progress on comprehensive immigration reform that addresses our economic needs and security needs, and upholds our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants," Obama said.

    Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that Congress should take up immigration reform in a news conference Monday, referring to the Arizona immigration law as that "awful law."

    "[The ruling] is a reminder that the ultimate responsibility for fixing the nation's broken immigration system rests with Congress," Reid said.

    Vargas agrees.

    "States cannot create their different immigration schemes. [Immigration reform] is not a fix for the states; this is a fix for the federal government. So our federal officials need to come together to address immigration reform," he said.