The Supreme Court today ruled in favor of an Arizona law that allows employers to place harsh penalties on business that hire undocumented immigrants.
The decision did not address Arizona’s immigration law SB 1070, which empowers police to use racial profiling to enforce immigration law.
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld an Arizona law that imposes harsh penalties on businesses that hire illegal immigrants.
The 5-to-3 decision amounted to a green light for vigorous state efforts to combat the employment of illegal workers. The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts on behalf of the court’s five more conservative members, noted that Colorado, Mississippi, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia had recently enacted laws similar to the one at issue in the case.
The decision did not directly address a second, more recent Arizona law that in some circumstances requires police there to question people they stop about their immigration status. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit blocked enforcement of that law in April, and the case may reach the Supreme Court soon.
The challenge to the older Arizona law that was the subject of Thursday’s decision was brought by a coalition of business and civil liberties groups, with support from the Obama administration. They said the law, the Legal Arizona Workers Act, conflicted with federal immigration policy.
The decision turned mostly on the meaning of a provision of a 1986 federal law, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which said that it overrode “any state or local law imposing civil or criminal sanctions (other than through licensing and similar laws) upon those who employ” unauthorized aliens.
The question was whether Arizona was entitled to supplement the penalties in the 1986 federal law with much tougher ones of its own. The state argued that the phrase in parentheses — “other than through licensing and similar laws” — allowed it to suspend or revoke the business licenses of repeat offenders. Critics called that provision of the state law a “business death penalty.”
Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the word “licensing” should be read broadly to allow states to supplement federal efforts to prevent the hiring of illegal workers. His decision was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and, for the most part, Clarence Thomas.