Skip to main content

Supreme Court Upholds Law Penalizing Illegal Immigrant Hiring

On Thursday, May 26, 2011, The Supreme Court upheld an Arizona law that imposes penalties on businesses that hire illegal workers with the loss or suspension of their business licenses.
By a 5-3 vote, the court said current federal immigration law gives states the authority to penalize employers. The court’s decision hinged on a provision in the meaning of a 1986 federal law, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which states that “any state or local law can impose civil or criminal sanctions upon those who” recruit or hire “unauthorized aliens.”
The court’s decision is expected to have two immediate and practical effects:

  1. It will protect employer sanctions laws in other states from being blocked or overturned, which is timely and important to state such as Alabama and Utah.
  2. It may raise doubts about the Obama Administration’s main argument against Arizona’s currently blocked and more controversial immigration law, SB 1070. The administration challenges the constitutionality of allowing local police to check the immigration status of people they arrest or stop for other reasons, which is outlined in the law.

Chief Justice, John Roberts, writing on behalf of the court’s voting majority members, pointed out that Colorado, Mississippi, Missouri, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia have already passed laws similar to the one at issue in the Arizona case.
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that the Arizona law upsets a balance in federal law between discouraging employers from hiring illegal workers and ensuring that people are not discriminated against because they might be immigrants. Employers “will hesitate to hire those they fear will turn out to lack the right to work in theUnited States,” he said.
The chief justice pointed out that there was no reason to fear that the state law would lead to discrimination against Hispanics who were in the United States lawfully.  He said, “The most rational path for employers is to obey the law — both the law barring the employment of unauthorized aliens and the law prohibiting discrimination.”
The Obama administration had hoped that the Supreme Court would strike down Arizona’s law as part of a broader push toward eliminating state laws that have emerged because of Congress’s failure of to pass national immigration reform legislation.
The Supreme Court also upheld Arizona’s requirement that employers verify immigration status of new workers using the federal E-verify System. This decision impacts immigration policy debate on a national level. While conservatives have been pushing for E-Verify to be implemented nationwide, critics have argued that the system, which is currently being tested on a limited basis as part of a pilot program, is technically still too flawed for widespread implementation.
For additional information on the passage and debate over Arizona’s law penalizing illegal immigrant hiring, click here.