Arizona will have its day in court. The Supreme Court opted this week to review the state’s crackdown on illegal immigration, which the Barack Obama administration says usurps the federal government’s enforcement role.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco previously agreed with the administration, blocking implementation of four provisions of the Arizona law, including its requirement that state and local law enforcement officers determine the status of individuals they stop or detain if the officers think they may be in the country illegally. This “papers, please” element of the law has been widely criticized but also emulated, most recently by Alabama.

In its court filing, the state said its 370-mile border with Mexico is a gateway for half the illegal immigrants to the U.S. This, the state said, imposes unique burdens -- such as high crime rates and the cost of providing health care and education to illegal immigrants. “Arizona has repeatedly asked the federal government for more vigorous enforcement of the immigration laws, but to no avail,” the brief reads.

The argument is a curious one to make in 2011. Since taking office in January 2009, the Obama administration has deported more than 1 million people, a number so high it has alarmed pro-immigrant groups and vastly exceeded the record of any previous administration.

The Customs and Border Patrol reported this week that border apprehensions, a primary gauge of illegal immigration, have dropped to one-fifth of their level in 2000. Apprehensions declined by more than half from 2008 to 2011, in part because of the doubling of border patrol agents since 2004. There are now more than 21,400 agents along the Southwestern border, aided by night-vision goggles, thermal imaging technology and drones.

Arizona’s border location surely increases its sense of vulnerability. The state says the nation’s broken immigration system has saddled it with an estimated 400,000 illegal immigrants. Leaving aside the benefits derived from increased economic activity and the taxes paid by that population, there are costs associated with them, as well.

Headless Bodies

Yet despite some hysteria from the office of Governor Jan Brewer over nonexistent headless bodies in the desert and the like, escalating crime does not appear to be among them. According to the state’s own statistics, crime has dropped significantly in recent years. The Department of Public Safety’s “crime clock” calculated that a major crime was committed in the state every 1 minute and 32 seconds in 2002. By 2010, the rate had fallen to every 2 minutes and 6 seconds.

One can acknowledge the “disproportionate” impact Arizona experiences from illegal immigration and still question why the state’s anti-immigrant wave surged just as the tide of illegal border crossings was receding and crime had declined. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, Los Angeles County alone had 916,000 illegal immigrants in 2008 -- more than twice as many as the entire state of Arizona. Yet Angelenos aren’t clamoring for new immigration legislation.

What Arizona has, in addition to an immigration problem, is a demagogy problem. Voters took a valuable step toward rectifying that in November, when they recalled Russell Pearce, the Republican state senator who wrote the immigration law, and replaced him with a moderate Republican. Perhaps months of negative publicity and an economic boycott of the state have taken a toll. Or perhaps the state’s residents are simply reconsidering their views.

Either way, it’s quite possible that Arizona will prevail in the Supreme Court. The Obama administration argues that federal immigration authorities are acting at Congress’s direction to “prioritize the identification and removal of aliens convicted of crime by the severity of that crime.” If Arizona is permitted to pursue every potential illegal immigrant, willy-nilly, the state risks clogging the system and diverting resources away from the pursuit of dangerous criminals.

The administration’s argument, along with claims about federal prerogatives, may be insufficient to convince the court’s conservative majority that Arizona is legally in the wrong. We hope that by June, when the justices are expected to rule on the case, reason will have regained its footing in Arizona and elsewhere. For the state and the country, the best possible outcome is the re-emergence of a more conciliatory political climate, followed by comprehensive immigration reform. That might render moot any ruling from the court at all.

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