What’s at stake?

Whether states will be allowed to upset the balance within federal immigration law between punishing businesses that hire unauthorized immigrants and keeping businesses from discriminating against people who may appear to be undocumented.

Issues:

Whether the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act preempts states from establishing their own enforcement scheme to sanction businesses that hire unauthorized immigrants, and whether Arizona’s mandated use of E-Verify to check the work authorization status of immigrants conflicts with the federal government’s decision to make the system voluntary.

Decision date:

May 26, 2011

Outcome:

5-3 in favor of Whiting.  Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion, except as to Parts II-B and III-B, joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito, and concurring in the judgment and joined as to Parts I, II-A, and III-A by Justice Thomas.  Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justice Ginsburg.  Justice Sotomayor dissented.  Justice Kagan recused.

What the court held:

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority upheld Arizona’s anti-immigrant Legal Arizona Workers Act.  The Court held that the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 did not preempt the state from revoking business licenses or mandating that employers’ check their employees’ immigration status using the federal E-Verify database.

In an effort to crack down on immigrants, Arizona passed a law in 2007 that punishes employers that hire undocumented workers by revoking their business license – referred to as the “business death penalty.”  The law also requires employers to use the federal E-Verify system – an online employment verification database. The Chamber of Commerce and immigrant rights’ organizations teamed up as unlikely allies to oppose the Arizona law, arguing that it is expressly and impliedly preempted by federal law. The IRCA 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” undocumented workers.

Arguing that the Arizona statute falls within the licensing exception (italicized above), the majority rejected the Chamber’s argument that the definition of “licensing” should come from the context of the statute.  Citing the dictionary definition of “license,” the majority concluded that Arizona’s sanctions of stripping businesses of the licenses they need to do business in Arizona was not preempted by the federal statute.  The decision also upheld the Arizona provision mandating the use of E-Verify, stating that “the requirement is entirely consistent with the federal law” because “the consequences of not using E-Verify under the Arizona law are the same as the consequences of not using the system under federal law.”

In an ironic twist following the Court’s recent pro-corporate decision in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, the majority cited the supposedly difficult burden that a party must meet to prove that federal law preempts state law, stating: “Our precedents establish that a high threshold must be met if a state law is to be pre-empted for conflicting with the purposes of a federal Act.  That threshold is not met here.”  In AT&T Mobility, the majority tossed aside a California law (and more than 20 other similar laws from other states) designed to protect consumers from being cheated by corporations on the grounds that a 1925 federal statute preempted it.  When evaluating a state law that threatened the rights and job opportunities of legal immigrants, however, the Court’s conservative majority was suddenly reluctant in Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting to find federal preemption.

Justice Breyer responded in a compelling dissent that “neither dictionary definitions nor the use of the word ‘license’ in an unrelated statute can demonstrate what scope Congress intended the word ‘licensing’ to have as it used that word in this federal statute.”  Breyer stated that Congress set equivalent penalties for hiring undocumented immigrants and for discriminating against prospective employees.  He argued that the purpose of this balance was to discourage employers from violating immigration laws while also discouraging them from making unlawful assumptions about the immigration status of applicants based on racial or linguistic factors.  Arizona’s law upsets this careful federal balance, Breyer added, noting that it “will impose additional burdens upon lawful employers and consequently lead those employers to erect ever stronger safeguards against the hiring of unauthorized aliens—without counterbalancing protection against unlawful discrimination.”  Breyer summed up his view that that federal law preempted Arizona’s statute in the following passage.

Why would Congress, after deliberately limiting ordinary penalties to the range of a few thousand dollars per illegal worker, want to permit far more drastic state penalties that would directly and mandatorily destroy entire businesses?  Why would Congress, after carefully balancing sanctions to avoid encouraging discrimination, want to allow States to destroy that balance?  Why would Congress, after creating detailed procedural protections for employers, want to allow States to undermine them?  Why would Congress want to write into an express pre-emption provision—a provision designed to prevent States from undercutting federal statutory objectives—an exception that could so easily destabilize its efforts?  The answer to these questions is that Congress would not have wanted to do any of these things.  And that fact indicates that the majority’s reading of the licensing exception—a reading that would allow what Congress sought to forbid—is wrong.

Justice Sotomayor also filed a dissent in which she argued that federal law should preempt Arizona’s statute.  Sotomayor stated that IRCA’s denial of work-eligibility status information to the states is inconsistent with an intent to allow states to enforce an immigration law like Arizona’s.  She stated that, “[h]aving constructed a federal mechanism for determining whether someone has knowingly employed an unauthorized alien, and having withheld from the States the information necessary to make that determination, Congress could not plausibly have intended for the saving clause to operate in the way the majority reads it to do.”  Sotomayor added that Congress expressly intended to create a uniform system of federal immigration enforcement when it enacted the IRCA – indeed, the statute was designed to supplant a patchwork of conflicting state laws in existence at the time – so Arizona’s state-specific immigration provision should be preempted for thwarting this congressional intent.

Reading the saving clause as the majority does subjects employers to a patchwork of enforcement schemes similar to the one that Congress sought to displace when it enacted IRCA.  Having carefully constructed a uniform federal scheme for determining whether a person has employed an unauthorized alien, Congress could not plausibly have meant to create such a gaping hole in that scheme through the undefined parenthetical phrase “licensing and similar laws.”

Justice Sotomayor also found that Congress expressly rejected the idea of mandating E-Verify when it set it up as a voluntary system.

In 2003, when Congress elected to expand E-Verify to all 50 states but declined to require its use, it cited to a congressionally mandated report concluding that the annual cost of the pilot program was $6 million, the annual cost of a nationwide voluntary system would be $11 million, and the annual cost of a nationwide mandatory program would be $11.7 billion.

Justice Breyer noted that E-Verify is inherently unreliable, with an 18% of requests returning false “unemployable” reports.  In one fiscal year, 46,921 workers were initially rejected but later confirmed as work authorized.

The Supreme Court could soon hear a case involving a separate anti-immigrant Arizona statute that threatens the rights of Arizona residents.  The Ninth Circuit in United States v. Arizona recently blocked enforcement of a law requiring police officers to stop certain individuals whom the police suspect to be illegal immigrants.

The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Legal Arizona Workers Act lays bare the Court’s willingness to selectively use the preemption doctrine to support its activist conservative agenda.

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