Protesters disagree about the Arizona immigration law outside the state… (Patrick Breen, Arizona…)
The Supreme Court's decision on Arizona's tough immigration law gave both sides an opportunity to celebrate, criticize and, inevitably, point fingers. Above all, it underscored the tricky politics surrounding the emotional issue, especially in the midst of a fiercely fought presidential campaign.
President Obama offered qualified praise, though he expressed concern the court upheld perhaps the most controversial part of the crackdown, a provision requiring police officers, making lawful stops, to check the immigration status of people they suspect may be in the country illegally.
His Republican rival, Mitt Romney, issued a terse statement accusing the incumbent of abdicating responsibility on the immigration issue, but skirted his own views on the high court ruling.
Of the two, the former Massachusetts governor is in the tougher position.
Immigration has bedeviled Romney like no other issue, placing him in pincers between his party's base, which is mostly white, conservative and strongly anti-illegal-immigrant, and the nation's burgeoning Latino population, which is gaining political influence in several states that could be crucial to the outcome in November. The candidate himself has said he must improve his standing among Latino voters or else cede the White House to Obama for another four years.
Romney's solution has been to walk away from the hard-edged rhetoric he used fighting to win the Republican nomination and instead attack the president for failing to deliver the sweeping immigration reform he pledged in 2008. "Yet another broken promise," Romney said in a brief written statement Monday.
"Each state has the duty — and the right — to secure our borders and preserve the rule of law, particularly when the federal government has failed to meet its responsibilities," he said.
Pointedly, Romney did not reiterate the comment he made during the Republican primary season, at a debate in Mesa, Ariz., when he intimated that the state law largely dismantled by the court Monday was a model for the rest of the country. He did, however, say at a Scottsdale, Ariz., fundraiser Monday afternoon that he "would have preferred to see the Supreme Court give more latitude to the states, not less."
Mainly, Romney has sought to shift the fight for Latino support to his preferred ground, the economy, citing the community's double-digit jobless rate under Obama, while ignoring the immigration issue to the greatest extent possible. On Monday, he declined to speak to reporters who followed him to Arizona.
But silence as a strategy has its own risks. While criticizing the president's recent order to stop the deportation of some young illegal immigrants — a move wildly popular among Latinos — Romney has repeatedly refused to say whether he would reverse the decision if elected in November. That calculated ambiguity has pleased neither side.
After Romney's vague statement Monday on the Supreme Court decision, Ana Navarro, a GOP strategist in Florida, said in a Twitter post, "I confess, as a Republican Hispanic, trying to put positive spin on Romney immigration (non)statements, well, let's just say it ain't easy."
But the immigration issue is not an unalloyed benefit for the White House, any more than the Supreme Court's decision offers the last word on the incendiary subject.
Privately, the president's supporters have been fretting over the Arizona case, worried that a decision striking down the law would only serve to energize the Republicans' tea party base. Arizona is the one state on the map lost by Obama in 2008 that his strategists are eyeing this fall; a backlash there could make an already difficult challenge just about impossible for the president.
In his own statement, Obama said he was pleased the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Arizona law, including parts that would have made it a state crime for illegal immigrants to seek work or fail to carry proper documentation. But Obama, like many Latino activists, expressed consternation over the "show me your papers" rule.
"No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion because of what they look like," Obama said.
This is a country of laws as well as immigrants, and balancing the two has been a challenge for presidents of both parties for decades. The tension has been evident as Obama has sought to finesse the issue by taking tough action — his administration has deported record numbers of immigrants — while at the same time expressing compassion, most recently with his order allowing legal protection for certain young people brought to the country illegally.
Tellingly, the president made no mention of the court ruling in a pair of stops Monday in New England.
If there is one broad area of agreement, it is that the country's immigration policy is a mess, pleasing no one: not the Latino community, not business interests, not the authorities charged with enforcing the law. In the rush to respond to the Supreme Court's decision, there was broad consensus that something needs to be done to bring coherence to the nation's border policy; even Romney and Obama agreed on that.
But that's where consensus ends and the grappling for political advantage begins.