Immigration and marriage equality have not been the subject of much contention between states and the federal government until recent decades. Before that, it was understood that the federal government handled immigration and states determined the legality of same-sex marriage. This understanding of exclusive responsibilities has changed; today both levels of government play roles in these two policy areas.
Immigration federalism describes the gradual movement of states into the immigration policy domain.Carol M. Swain and Virgina M. Yetter. (2014). “Federalism and the Politics of Immigration Reform.” In The Politics of Major Policy Reform in Postwar America, eds. Jeffery A. Jenkins and Sidney M. Milkis. New York: Cambridge University Press. Since the late 1990s, states have asserted a right to make immigration policy on the grounds that they are enforcing, not supplanting, the nation’s immigration laws, and they are exercising their jurisdictional authority by restricting illegal immigrants’ access to education, health care, and welfare benefits, areas that fall under the states’ responsibilities. In 2005, twenty-five states had enacted a total of thirty-nine laws related to immigration; by 2014, forty-three states and Washington, DC, had passed a total of 288 immigration-related laws and resolutions.National Conference of State Legislatures. “State Laws Related to Immigration and Immigrants.” http://www.ncsl.org/research/immigration/state-laws-related-to-immigration-and-immigrants.aspx (June 23, 2015).
Arizona has been one of the states at the forefront of immigration federalism. In 2010, it passed Senate Bill 1070, which sought to make it so difficult for illegal immigrants to live in the state that they would return to their native country, a strategy referred to as “attrition by enforcement.”Michele Waslin. 2012. “Discrediting ‘Self Deportation’ as Immigration Policy,” February 6. http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/special-reports/discrediting-%E2%80%9Cself-deportation%E2%80%9D-immigration-policy The federal government filed suit to block the Arizona law, contending that it conflicted with federal immigration laws. Arizona’s law has also divided society, because some groups, like the Tea Party movement, have supported its tough stance against illegal immigrants, while other groups have opposed it for humanitarian and human-rights reasons (Figure). According to a poll of Latino voters in the state by Arizona State University researchers, 81 percent opposed this bill.Daniel González. 2010. “SB 1070 Backlash Spurs Hispanics to Join Democrats,” June 8. http://archive.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/news/articles/2010/06/08/20100608arizona-immigration-law-backlash.html
In 2012, in Arizona v. United States, the Supreme Court affirmed federal supremacy on immigration.Arizona v. United States, 567 U.S. __ (2012). The court struck down three of the four central provisions of the Arizona law—namely, those allowing police officers to arrest an undocumented immigrant without a warrant if they had probable cause to think he or she had committed a crime that could lead to deportation, making it a crime to seek a job without proper immigration papers, and making it a crime to be in Arizona without valid immigration papers. The court upheld the “show me your papers” provision, which authorizes police officers to check the immigration status of anyone they stop or arrest who they suspect is an illegal immigrant.Arizona v. United States, 567 U.S. __ (2012). However, in letting this provision stand, the court warned Arizona and other states with similar laws that they could face civil rights lawsuits if police officers applied it based on racial profiling.Julia Preston, “Arizona Ruling Only a Narrow Opening for Other States,” New York Times, 25 June 2012. All in all, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion embraced an expansive view of the U.S. government’s authority to regulate immigration and aliens, describing it as broad and undoubted. That authority derived from the legislative power of Congress to “establish a uniform Rule of Naturalization,” enumerated in the Constitution.
Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 has been the subject of heated debate. Read the views of proponents and opponents of the law.
Marital rights for gays and lesbians have also significantly changed in recent years. By passing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996, the federal government stepped into this policy issue. Not only did DOMA allow states to choose whether to recognize same-sex marriages, it also defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman, which meant that same-sex couples were denied various federal provisions and benefits—such as the right to file joint tax returns and receive Social Security survivor benefits. In 1997, more than half the states in the union had passed some form of legislation banning same-sex marriage. By 2006, two years after Massachusetts became the first state to recognize marriage equality, twenty-seven states had passed constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. In United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court changed the dynamic established by DOMA by ruling that the federal government had no authority to define marriage. The Court held that states possess the “historic and essential authority to define the marital relation,” and that the federal government’s involvement in this area “departs from this history and tradition of reliance on state law to define marriage.”United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. __ (2013).
Edith Windsor: Icon of the Marriage Equality Movement
Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case United States v. Windsor, has become an icon of the marriage equality movement for her successful effort to force repeal the DOMA provision that denied married same-sex couples a host of federal provisions and protections. In 2007, after having lived together since the late 1960s, Windsor and her partner Thea Spyer were married in Canada, where same-sex marriage was legal. After Spyer died in 2009, Windsor received a $363,053 federal tax bill on the estate Spyer had left her. Because her marriage was not valid under federal law, her request for the estate-tax exemption that applies to surviving spouses was denied. With the counsel of her lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, Windsor sued the federal government and won (Figure).
Because of the Windsor decision, federal laws could no longer discriminate against same-sex married couples. What is more, marriage equality became a reality in a growing number of states as federal court after federal court overturned state constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. The Windsor case gave federal judges the moment of clarity from the U.S. Supreme Court that they needed. James Esseks, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & AIDS Project, summarizes the significance of the case as follows: “Part of what’s gotten us to this exciting moment in American culture is not just Edie’s lawsuit but the story of her life. The love at the core of that story, as well as the injustice at its end, is part of what has moved America on this issue so profoundly.”James Esseks. 2014. “Op-ed: In the Wake of Windsor,” June 26. http://www.advocate.com/commentary/2014/06/26/op-ed-wake-windsor (June 24, 2015). In the final analysis, same-sex marriage is a protected constitutional right as decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which took up the issue again when it heard Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015.
What role do you feel the story of Edith Windsor played in reframing the debate over same-sex marriage? How do you think it changed the federal government’s view of its role in legislation regarding same-sex marriage relative to the role of the states?
Following the Windsor decision, the number of states that recognized same-sex marriages increased rapidly, as illustrated in Figure. In 2015, marriage equality was recognized in thirty-six states plus Washington, DC, up from seventeen in 2013. The diffusion of marriage equality across states was driven in large part by federal district and appeals courts, which have used the rationale underpinning the Windsor case (i.e., laws cannot discriminate between same-sex and opposite-sex couples based on the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment) to invalidate state bans on same-sex marriage. The 2014 court decision not to hear a collection of cases from four different states essentially affirmed same-sex marriage in thirty states. And in 2015 the Supreme Court gave same-sex marriage a constitutional basis of right nationwide in Obergefell v. Hodges. In sum, as the immigration and marriage equality examples illustrate, constitutional disputes have arisen as states and the federal government have sought to reposition themselves on certain policy issues, disputes that the federal courts have had to sort out.