Roberts Court Upholds Arizona's "Death Penalty" for Companies Hiring Undocumented Immigrants

With Chief Justice Roberts writing an opinion for the conservative majority (or, in parts of the decision, a plurality), the Supreme Court yesterday upheld an Arizona law imposing draconian penalties on employers for hiring undocumented aliens, evading a federal law preempting such state laws.

Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting involves a 2007 Arizona law that punishes employers who knowingly hire undocumented aliens by suspending or revoking most of their state licenses. The Chamber of Commerce argued that the law is preempted by the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). IRCA prohibits the hiring of undocumented aliens and sets forth procedures employers must follow before hiring someone and the sanctions they will incur for violating the law.

Most importantly, IRCA expressly preempts local and state laws creating sanctions (other than through licensing and similar laws).

It is the "licensing and similar laws" clause in the federal law that is crucial in this case, because the draconian punishment set forth in the Arizona law is the suspension and revocation of "licenses," a term defined so broadly in the Arizona statute that it even includes a company's articles of incorporation. Some have called this the "business death sentence."

The Court noted that in dictionary definitions and other statutes, the term "license" can have a very wide definition that includes articles of incorporation. The Court concluded that nothing in the federal law prohibits Arizona from broadly defining the term licenses, so it upholds the state law. However, Justices Breyer and Sotomayor's dissents pointed out that the opinion overlooks how context narrows the definition of a word. As Justice Breyer wrote:

But 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. Instead, statutory context must ultimately determine the word's coverage.

Justice Breyer pointed out that IRCA is carefully calibrated to balance multiple competing goals. Arizona's "death penalty" for businesses and lax procedural safeguards throw IRCA's carefully calibrated balance into disarray. Justice Sotomayor explained that the uniform federal plan becomes wildly internally inconsistent if interpreted to allow state-by-state decisions as to whether an employer has hired an undocumented worker.

The Court also upheld Arizona's requiring employers to use the federal E-Verify database to confirm that a person is legally authorized to work. Federal law makes its use voluntary, but the Roberts Court held that means only that no federal agency can make its use mandatory. States are free to require it if they so choose. The fact that it is a pilot program and that Congress actually had reasons not to make its use mandatory seems not to matter.

Federal law mandates a unified federal approach to immigration issues, and comprehensive immigration reform is long overdue. But right-wing efforts in Arizona to attack immigrants on a state-by-state basis today got a green light from the Roberts Court. This may signal that the state's infamous "your papers please" anti-immigrant law may get a welcome reception from the conservative Justices.

PFAW