Busy, Scary Week Ahead on Capitol Hill: Immigration on Center Stage

Published on December 6th, 2010

Immigration, always a hot button, takes center stage this week. Congressional leaders have scheduled a DREAM Act vote for December 8th, the same day that the Supreme Court will hear opening arguments on the Chamber of Commerce of the United States v. Whiting. At issue is the 2007 Arizona Legal Workers Act (not to be confused with S.B. 1070) that requires state employers to check the immigration status of its new workers through the federal E-Verify computer database. The law that created the database makes its use voluntary. Violators face stiff consequences since companies that knowingly or intentionally hire aliens may have their business licenses revoked. The question facing the court is whether the Arizona Legal Workers Act’s provisions are pre-empted by federal immigration laws. That is, can states and cities enforce their own laws against illegal immigrants or must they rely on the federal government to take action? The Arizona law had previously been challenged by the Chamber of Commerce, the American Civil Liberties Union and immigration advocacy groups. But a federal court and then a U.S. appeals court upheld the law. That the Arizona law has reached the Supreme Court is proof of President Barack Obama’s immigration hypocrisy.  During his campaign, Obama frequently called for a crackdown on employers who hire illegal aliens and promised tougher enforcement standards to deter companies from employing illegal workers. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who as then-Arizona governor signed the bill into law, said at the time that it would impose the “business death penalty” on employers caught a second time hiring illegal workers, and blamed “the flow of illegal immigration into our state … [on] the constant demand of some employers for cheap, undocumented labor.” Now, of course, she sides with Obama. The law has had the desirable effect of producing what Obama claimed he wanted. During 40 raids on employers accused of hiring illegal aliens, more than 300 were arrested for identity theft and fraud while at least two employers faced civil penalties. The Supreme Court outcome will have important consequences. Not since 1976 has the court ruled on federal-vs.-state immigration interpretations. If the court upholds the Arizona Legal Workers Act, many other states are expected to follow its example. According to the National Conferences of State Legislators, 44 states have pending measures similar to Arizona’s. On the other hand, if the justices conclude that federal immigration laws preempt state rules that likely would be the death knell for SB 1070, the Arizona law passed earlier this year that under certain circumstances gives police the option to question illegal aliens about their immigration status. The bill’s author, State Senator Russell Pearce, and Governor Jan Brewer, elected in large part because of her commitment to immigration enforcement will be in Washington for the hearings. A ruling is not expected until spring. Because the newest justice Elena Kagan recused herself, Arizona will need five of eight votes to prevail and make the state safe for American workers.

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