Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court has laid down a few hard rules about what states can and can't do to deal with the wave of illegal immigrants within their borders. But the issue remains murkier than ever because Congress can't agree on needed reforms.

If the high court's ruling Monday on Arizona's stringent immigration law tells us anything about this messy issue, it underscores the need for a set of new federal rules. We need a fail- safe system to deal with the more than eleven million illegals who live here, one that helps, not hurts, our economy and fosters stronger economic growth.

No one, however, expects Congress to address this issue in an election year. It remains a political football that President Obama has aggressively played to the hilt in a narrowly-focused campaign aimed at appealing to special interest groups to distract attention from his failures on the economy and jobs.

Illegal immigration remains a top political issue among Hispanics and Latinos, but it's not the dominant issue it once was in years past among the broader electorate.

In March, the Gallup Poll presented a list of 15 issues to Americans in a nationwide survey, asking them "if you personally worry about this problem a great deal, a fair amount, only a little, or not at all?"

The economy was at the top of their concerns, with 71 percent saying "a great deal" and 22 percent saying a "fair amount." Then came gas prices, federal spending, deficits and debt, health care, and unemployment, followed by other issues ranging from Social Security to terrorism.

Illegal immigration was second from the bottom. Only 34 percent said they worried about it "a great deal"; 23 percent said "a fair amount"; and 41 percent said "little or not at all."

All of this speaks volumes about how disconnected Obama is from the overriding concerns of the American people.

The vast majority of voters are deeply worried about a slowing economy that's drifting toward a recession, federal spending and trillion dollar budget deficits, and jobs.

But in the fourth year of his presidency, Barack Obama is suddenly focused on how he can win the Hispanic vote by halting deportations of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants between the ages of 16 and 30.

Meantime, the Supreme Court has settled a few issues that will affect states that have passed immigration laws similar to Arizona's.

Among the prohibitions the court ordered: They could not make it a crime (in Arizona's case, a misdemeanor) for illegal immigrants to apply for work, or make it a crime if someone failed to fill out and carry an illegal registration document.

The court also ruled against a provision under which a state officer, "without a warrant, may arrest a person if the officer has probable cause to believe... [that person] has committed any public offense that makes [him] removable from the United States."

In each of these cases, the court said the provisions imposed penalties that were in conflict with what Congress has adopted, or encroached on the removal process that "is entrusted to the discretion of the federal government."

It did uphold the so-called "show me papers" provision that require police officers to verify the immigration status of anyone they detain and suspect may be here illegally.

While this provision has not been implemented, pending judicial review, the court warned that "This opinion does not foreclose other preemption and constitutional challenges to the law as interpreted and applied after it goes into effect."

In the final analysis, the court reinforced a central tenet in the long-running debate over immigration policy: The federal government has primary responsibility over immigration law and policy.

No doubt there will be further legal challenges in the future on immigration law, until Congress is ready to take responsibility for this issue and the large number of illegal residents who work and have raised families here.

Clearly, as the stalemate in Congress attests, we are not going to deport all the illegal immigrants who live here.

The argument of blanket amnesty is a strong one and has prevented any solution from gaining majority support. That has resulted in a de facto amnesty and will continue to have for the foreseeable future.

Former governor Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, has taken a hardcore stand against any reforms that would allow some illegals to remain in our country.

But Romney seems to have softened his position lately, suggesting he may support letting children of parents, who brought them here when they were very young, remain here. He may also support giving some illegals a path to citizenship who join the military.

There is also a growing movement among some of the states to allow high school graduates who are the children of illegals to attend college at in-state tuition rates.

The state of Texas enacted a program that allows this and their GOP-dominated legislature is as conservative as it gets in state politics. Of course, it didn't help Gov. Rick Perry's brief presidential bid earlier this year, though other issues were also responsible for ending his candidacy.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also embraced residency reforms for illegal immigrants who have lived here for many years, raised a family, paid their bills, have a spotless record. And apparently it didn't hurt him in the early primaries when he briefly soared in the polls.

As things stand now, Republicans are going to lose the lion's share of the large Hispanic vote in November which is going to Obama in key swing states that should be GOP territory. And that could be the critical factor that decides who sits in the White House for the next four years.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.