Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. had barely started his argument against Arizona’s immigration law on Wednesday at the Supreme Court when Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. signaled where he stood — in sympathy with the state’s defense of the statute.

His first question for Mr. Verrilli made it clear how little Chief Justice Roberts was focused on its pernicious effects and how little he wanted that discussed in the court: “No part of your argument has to do with racial or ethnic profiling, does it?” The solicitor general had to agree. The government’s case turns on the doctrine of pre-emption, not on the injustice of the Arizona law.

Mr. Verrilli then found himself in a debate about the statute as Chief Justice Roberts portrayed it, not the one that is actually law. The chief justice all but reduced the statute’s central purpose to information-gathering. Requiring police officers to determine the status of anyone they stop if they believe the person to be an illegal immigrant, he said, simply lets the federal government figure out whether the person is in the country illegally. It leaves it up to federal authorities to do something about that or not, with no burden on the government and no required shift in its priorities.

The statute’s likely effects on Hispanics in Arizona that emerged in questioning were considerably more frightening — in keeping with a law whose explicit purpose is “attrition through enforcement.” The solicitor general used the term “mass incarceration” to describe a likely result of the Arizona statute.

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