Supreme Court justices took a dim view of the Obama administration’s claim that it can stop Arizona from enforcing immigration laws, telling government lawyers during oral argument Wednesday that the state appears to want to push federal officials, not conflict with them.
The court was hearing arguments on Arizona’s immigration crackdown law, which requires police to check the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally, and would also write new state penalties for illegal immigrants who try to apply for jobs.
Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. said the federal government has limited resources and should have the right to determine the extent of calls it gets about possible illegal immigrants.
“These decisions have to be made at the national level,” he said.
But even Democratic-appointed justices were uncertain of that.
“I’m terribly confused by your answer,” said Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who went on to say that the federal government can always decline to pick up illegal immigrants when Arizona officials call.
The Obama administration was on its firmest ground when it argued Arizona should not be allowed to impose state penalties such as jail time against illegal immigrants who try to seek jobs.
Federal law chiefly targets employers, not employees, and Mr. Verrilli said adding stiffer penalties at the state level is not coordination.
A decision is expected before the end of the court’s term this summer.
Mr. Verrilli said Arizona’s goal is to try to force the federal government to change its priorities, but he said those policies are designed at the national level in order to balance concerns over available resources and international relations.
“What [Arizona is] going to do is engage effectively in mass incarceration,” he said. “It poses a very serious risk of raising serious foreign relations problems.”
Some of the justices, including Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., seemed concerned that allowing police to perform immigration checks could end up leading citizens being held even longer during stops by police.