The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that Arizona is well within its rights to require employers to check the legal status of their workers through a federal government database. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce had sued the state over the law, arguing that immigration enforcement is exclusively the purview of the federal government.
At oral argument, four of the justices made it clear they would rule with Arizona. The final decision was 5-3. Justice Elena Kagan did not vote in the case because of her prior role as solicitor general in the Obama administration. As part of a sweeping immigration law passed in 1986, Congress removed almost all states’ rights to enforce immigration, making it a federal responsibility. Lawmakers left one clause, however, pertaining to “all licenses necessary to operate the business.”
Writing the main opinion for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts said that Arizona enforces its employment-verification requirement through licensing laws, which is a clear opening for states. “We hold that 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,” he wrote.
The decision will be welcome news to other state legislatures. Following in Arizona’s steps, other states have considered requiring employers to enroll in the Homeland Security Department’s voluntary E-Verify program, which checks workers’ names and ID numbers against government databases. Georgia recently enacted such a law.
The justices’ ruling on state preemption will be the opening salvo in a lengthy discussion at the highest levels about whether states can get tough on illegal immigrants. Arizona’s E-Verify law isn’t as sweeping as a broad immigration-enforcement statute the state passed last year, which is also making its way through the courts in the wake of a lawsuit filed by the federal government. The high court’s view of the narrower employer-focused law signals that states have some leeway in passing laws similar to Arizona’s now-infamous immigration law.
A federal E-Verify requirement is also in the works, soon to be introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas. In a statement, Smith said, “I am pleased the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the Arizona E-Verify law and their right to revoke business licenses for employers that knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Not only is this law constitutional, it is commonsense.”
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