The Supreme Court has backed an Arizona law that punishes businesses hiring illegal immigrants, a law that opponents, including the Obama administration, say steps on traditional federal oversight over immigration matters.
It was the first high court challenge to a variety of recent state laws cracking down on illegal immigrants, an issue that has become a political lightning rod.
The outcome could serve as a judicial warmup for a separate high-profile challenge to a more controversial Arizona immigration reform law working its way through lower courts. That statute would, among other things, give local police a greater role in arresting suspected illegal immigrants.
The hiring case turned on whether state law tramples on federal authority.
“Arizona has taken the route least likely to cause tension with federal law,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts. “It relies solely on the federal government’s own determination of who is an unauthorized alien, and it requires Arizona employers to use the federal government’s own system for checking employee status.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing that federal law prohibits Arizona and other states from making E-Verify use mandatory. The group was supported by a variety of civil rights and immigration rights groups. The state countered that its broad licensing authority gives it the right to monitor businesses within its jurisdiction.
The Obama administration recommended a judicial review and sided with businesses and civil rights groups.
In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted E-Verify is a voluntary program and said criticism that the federal government is not doing enough to enforce the law is irrelevant.
“Permitting states to make use of E-Verify mandatory improperly puts states in the position of making decisions . . . that directly affect expenditure and depletion of federal resources,” she wrote. Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg also dissented.
Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the case, since she had been the administration’s solicitor general last year when the case was being appealed to the high court.
The hiring case is Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting (09-115).