Supreme Court: key provision in Arizona immigration law is OK
Yesterday 5/26 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Arizona’s 2010 immigration law, SB 1070, in particular the provision under which businesses are penalized for hiring illegal workers. (The Court did not rule on the most publicized part of the law, which is to authorize police officers to inquire about immigration status.) This ruling will likely accelerate state initiatives to create their own immigration law enforcement programs.
The case is Chamber of Commerce of America vs. Whiting et al. Here is the key passage from the decision:
The [Federal] Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) makes it “unlawful for a person or other entity . . . to hire, or to recruit or refer for a fee, for employment in the United States an alien knowing the alien is an unauthorized alien.” 8 U. S. C. §1324a(a)(1)(A). Employers that vio- late that prohibition may be subjected to federal civil and criminal sanctions. IRCA also restricts the ability of States to combat employment of unauthorized workers; the Act expressly preempts “any State or local law imposing civil or criminal sanctions (other than through licensing and similar laws) upon those who employ, or recruit or refer for a fee for employment, unauthorized aliens.” §1324a(h)(2).
IRCA also requires employers to take steps to verify an employee’s eligibility for employment. In an attempt to improve that verification process in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsi- bility Act (IIRIRA), Congress created E-Verify—an internet-based system employers can use to check the work authorization status of employees.
Against this stautory background, everal States have recently enacted laws attempting to impose sanctions for the employment of unauthorized aliens through, among other things, “licensing and similar laws.” Arizona is one of them. The Legal Arizona Workers Act provides that the licenses of state employers that knowingly or intentionally employ unauthorized aliens may be, and in certain circumstances must be, suspended or revoked. That law also requires that all Arizona employers use E-Verify.
The Chamber of Commerce of the United States and various business and civil rights organizations (collectively Chamber) filed this federal preenforcement suit against those charged with administering the Arizona law, arguing that the state law’s license suspension and revocation provisions were both expressly and impliedly pre- empted by federal immigration law, and that the mandatory use of E- Verify was impliedly preempted. The District Court found that the plain language of IRCA’s preemption clause did not invalidate the Arizona law because the law did no more than impose licensing conditions on businesses operating within the State. Nor was the state law preempted with respect to E-Verify, the court concluded, because although Congress had made the program voluntary at the national level, it had expressed no intent to prevent States from mandating participation. The Ninth Circuit affirmed.
Held: The judgment is affirmed.
Justice Breyer’s minority opinion says, “Arizona calls its state statute a “licensing law,” and the statute uses the word “licensing.” But the statute strays beyond the bounds of the federal licensing exception, for it defines “license” to include articles of incorporation and partnership certificates, indeed virtually every state-law authorization for any firm, corporation, or partnership to do business in the State. (excepting professional licenses, and water and environ- mental permits). Congress did not intend its “licensing” language to create so broad an exemption, for doing so would permit States to eviscerate the federal Act’s pre- emption provision, indeed to subvert the Act itself, by undermining Congress’ efforts (1) to protect lawful work- ers from national-origin-based discrimination and (2) to protect lawful employers against erroneous prosecution or punishment.”
According to the New York Times, “The decision on Thursday turned mostly on the meaning of a provision of a 1986 federal law, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which said that it overrode “any state or local law imposing civil or criminal sanctions (other than through licensing and similar laws) upon those who” recruit or hire “unauthorized aliens.”
The question was whether Arizona was entitled to supplement the penalties in the 1986 federal law with much tougher ones of its own. The state argued that the phrase in parentheses — “other than through licensing and similar laws” — allowed it to suspend or revoke the business licenses of repeat offenders. Critics called that provision of the state law a “business death penalty.”