U.S. Supreme Court upholds law penalizing businesses that hire illegal immigrants

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday upheld an Arizona law that severely penalizes businesses that knowingly hire illegal immigrants. The News and Observer reports it’s a ruling that’s likely to affect Federal and state immigration policies.

The decision keeps intact the 2007 Legal Arizona Workers Act. Under the law, employers could have their business licenses suspended or revoked for hiring illegal immigrants. The ruling will make it easier for states to pass similar laws, even though immigration is traditionally a federal responsibility.

The law upheld Thursday also requires Arizona employers to use a federal program called E-Verify to check the immigration status of potential workers.

An estimated 250,000 illegal immigrants are in the labor force in North Carolina, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. They make up about 5.4 percent of the state’s workforce.

U.S. Reps. Heath Shuler, a Waynesville Democrat, and Sue Myrick, a Charlotte Republican, both have signed on as co-sponsors of legislation that would require federal contractors to use the E-Verify electronic database to determine the legal status of employees.

The decision in Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting didn’t involve a more controversial Arizona measure that requires police to check the immigration status of individuals in certain circumstances. That law remains under separate legal challenge.

Nationwide, more than 215,000 employers have signed up for the optional E-Verify system. Other states now can follow Arizona’s lead to make its use mandatory. In Congress, some lawmakers soon will introduce legislation that would make E-Verify mandatory everywhere.

The decision Thursday affirms the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which had likewise upheld the state law. It’s a defeat for the politically powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Obama administration, both of which had opposed the law.

“Either directly or through the uncertainty that it creates, the Arizona statute will impose additional burdens upon lawful employers,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in dissent.

Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, added that fearful employers may now “erect ever stronger safeguards against the hiring of unauthorized aliens, without counterbalancing protections against unlawful discrimination.”

Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas joined in most of the majority opinion. Justice Elena Kagan didn’t participate in the case because of her prior job as the Obama administration’s solicitor general.

Arizona legislators explicitly cited their frustration with the federal gridlock over immigration when they passed the 2007 law. The frustration is widely shared in other states, where legislators introduced more than 1,500 immigration-related bills in 2009, quintuple the number introduced in 2005.

The Arizona law established a tiered set of penalties, ranging from a 10-day suspension to permanent revocation of a business license. Without a license, employers can’t do business in the state.

Thirteen states, including Missouri, Kansas and South Carolina, allied themselves with Arizona in citing states’ traditional authority over business licensing. These could become the next states to adopt stricter rules.

Congress prohibited the employment of illegal immigrants under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. The law specifically pre-empted states from taking civil or criminal actions against employers who hired illegal immigrants, though it left a small loophole to permit “licensing” actions.

The decision Thursday relies on this provision concerning licensing, saying that the state is simply engaging in its customary regulation of business licenses. Read More.

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