WASHINGTON -- Clothing its ruling in the language of respect for federal power, the U.S. Supreme Court has just unleashed state and local police to act freely and aggressively as federal immigration officers. The decision is bad news for the Romney campaign -- already struggling with the Latino vote -- because it will likely increase the sense of paranoia and oppression in an already beset but vast national community.
True, the decision could have been much worse from the immigrant community's point of view. The high court struck down "round up" provisions that would have allowed state and local police to detain anyone they found without proper papers. The justices also made sweeping statements reaffirming that the overall power to control immigration and immigration laws rests with the federal government.
And the court's first and only Hispanic justice, Sonia Sotomayor, joined the majority opinion.
But the court upheld the specifics of Arizona law SB 1070 that require local officers to seek to determine the immigration status of anyone they stop for another violation -- no matter how minor -- if they have a reasonable doubt that the person they have stopped may not be a legal resident of the United States.
The court said its decision does not bar future legal challenges once the so-called "papers please" provision goes into effect. But for now, the measure that has already unleashed fears of racial profiling stands.
"It turns the police into immigration officers and that is a terrible narrative for the Latino community," said Maria Teresa Kumar of Voto Latino, a non-partisan organization that works to register Latino voters. "The headlines in the Hispanic media will be uniformly negative."
The problem for the Romney campaign is that the ruling upholds one of the most invasive features of the law in the eyes of many Latinos, who have expressed fear that police will use racial characteristics to identify suspects even if they claim they will not.
As the presumptive GOP nominee, Mitt Romney is trying to moderate his stands on immigration issues, but he is likely to lose voters whichever way he turns on this one. Praise the court and he offends Latinos; fault it and he offends social conservatives who have made a crackdown on the undocumented a key Tea Party plank.
The ruling in at least one specific sense could be a boon to the Obama campaign. Since possession of a valid driver's license is, under the Arizona law, sufficient proof of citizenship, the ruling will force legal residents and citizens to get them if they don't have them.
There's no better place to run a registration drive than at or near a DMV. Most of those voters are likely to be Democrats, or at least Obama supporters.
More generally, the Obama campaign can reach out sympathetically to the Latino community. That could matter in swing states, especially Colorado, Nevada, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia.
The president can also say that on the larger constitutional question -- who controls immigration law -- the court agreed with his administration.