Supreme Court lets anti-immigrant law stand

WASHINGTON – By a 5-3 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled May 26 that Arizona’s first anti-immigrant law, which let the state yank the licenses from businesses, unless they used a faulty federal citizenship verification system to check the status of their workers, is legal. 

The decision disappointed the unusual coalition that opposes Arizona’s anti-Hispanic crusade. The Chamber of Commerce and the Service Employees union had both teamed up against it.  Union Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo Medina, the son of immigrants, said the High Court’s ruling would cause the very disruptions the High Court denies would occur.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote Arizona acted within a narrow part of federal immigration law that let states move on their own: Giving or yanking business licenses, and setting requirements for those permits.

“Arizona’s licensing law falls well within the confines of the authority Congress chose to leave to the states and therefore is not expressly preempted” by federal immigration law, Roberts, a GOP appointee, wrote for the majority.

Legal scholars said this ruling provides few guideposts for what the court will decide when it finally tackles Arizona’s wider anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic law, SB1070.  That law lets state and local police stop anyone they suspect of being undocumented and immediately ask for proof of legal residence or citizenship.  If there’s no proof, the person can be immediately arrested and deported.

The Obama administration, SEIU and civil rights and immigrant rights groups challenged that law in court, too, on the grounds that the federal government controls immigration policy.  A federal appeals court in San Francisco has stalled implementation of its key provisions.

While the present 25-year-old federal immigration law bans states “from imposing ‘civil or criminal sanctions’ on those who employ unauthorized aliens, it preserves state authority to impose sanctions ‘through licensing and similar laws,'” Roberts wrote.

“That is what the Arizona law does: It instructs courts to suspend or revoke the business licenses of in-state employers that employ unauthorized aliens.  The definition of ‘license’ contained in the Arizona statute largely parrots the definition of ‘license'” Congress uses, he said. 

And the Arizona law tells businesses to use the often faulty E-verify (may 25 natl critics) system to check citizenship of job applicants.  “Given that Congress specifically preserved such authority for the states, it stands to reason that Congress did not intend to prevent the states from using appropriate tools to exercise that authority,” the chief justice wrote.

Roberts also turned aside the argument that “employers will err on the side of discrimination rather than risk the ‘business death penalty’ by hiring unauthorized workers.”  He replied, “That is not the choice.  License termination is not an available sanction for merely hiring unauthorized workers, but is triggered only by far more egregious violations,” which are “knowing and intentional,” he added.

Medina disagreed, and said, “The court placed a stamp of approval on legislation that unfairly and unjustly targets working people and honest employers who contribute to local economies and help to make this nation great.”  The one positive note, Medina added, is that the ruling is narrow – as is this Arizona law, unlike SB1070.

“In this narrow case involving an older Arizona law, the court decided that Arizona’s E-verify law is not preempted by federal law because Congress expressly permitted states to impose employer sanctions so long as they do so through licensing laws.  Arizona’s requirement meets the definition of a licensing law,” Medina said.

The big problem, Medina explained, is that “E-Verify is voluntary and is fraught with high costs for small businesses and too many errors that dislocate legal workers. Making it mandatory and then stripping away the license to do business is surely a business death penalty that hurts the economy.”

“Such policies ruin the economy and create a disadvantage for honest employers who are trying to follow the law,” he added, “while tax-cheating employers drive the underground cash economy with disqualified workers.”

“Congress must act quickly on comprehensive immigration solutions so that our economy can thrive with workers who become legalized and allow all employers in all states to play by the same set of rules,” Medina concluded.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.