A protest against Arizona's immigration law outside the Supreme… (Mandel Ngan / AFP-Getty…)
The Supreme Court’s mixed 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 — for both parties — especially in the midst of a fiercely fought presidential campaign.
President Obama offered qualified praise for the ruling, saying 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 concern the court upheld perhaps the most controversial portion of the state crackdown, a provision allowing police officers, making lawful stops, to check the immigration status of people who they suspect may be in the country illegally.
“No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion because of what they look like,” Obama said in a written response.
Mitt Romney, the president’s Republican rival, issued his own terse statement, accusing Obama of abdicating responsibility on the immigration issue, but skirting details of the high court ruling.
“I believe that 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,” the former Massachusetts governor said.
Later, speaking at a Scottsdale fundraiser, he added, “I would have preferred to see the Supreme Court give more latitude to the state’s, not less.”
Pointedly, Romney did not reiterate the comment he made during the Republican nominating fight, at a debate in Mesa, Az., when he suggested that the tough Arizona law was a model for the rest of the country. Nor was Romney prepared to step before TV cameras Monday, which would have carried his response to a far wider audience, even though he was visiting Arizona for the prearranged fundraiser in Scottsdale.
Immigration has bedeviled Romney like no other issue, placing him in a pincer between the GOP’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. Romney himself has said he must improve his standing among Latino voters, or else cede Obama a second term.
Romney’s solution has been to distance himself from the hard-edged rhetoric he used while fighting to win the Republican nomination and attack the president for failing to deliver the sweeping immigration reform he pledged in the 2008 campaign. “Yet another broken promise,” he said in Monday’s written statement.
Mainly, though, Romney has sought to shift the fight to his preferred ground, the economy, citing the double-digit Latino jobless rate that has persisted under the Democratic incumbent, while ignoring the immigration issue to the greatest extent possible.
But silence as a strategy has its own risks. While criticizing Obama’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 president. That calculated ambiguity has pleased neither side of the contentious debate.
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 to the White House, any more than the Supreme Court’s split decision offers the last word on the touchy 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 Republican’s tea party base. Arizona is the one state on the map that Obama lost in 2008 that strategists are eyeing in November; a backlash there could make an already difficult challenge just about impossible for the president.
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 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 move allowing certain young people to stay here illegally.
Tellingly, the president made no mention of the court ruling in a nearly 40-minute speech he gave Monday afternoon in New Hampshire.
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 Monday to the Supreme Court’s decision, there was broad consensus that something needs to be done to bring coherency to protection of the nation’s borders; even Romney and Obama agreed on that.
But that’s where consensus ends and the grappling for political advantage begins.
[For the Record, 2:24 p.m. PST June 25: This post has been updated to reflect Romney's most recent remarks on the Supreme Court's ruling.]