Supreme Court Upholds Arizona Labor Law, But It’s No Model for SB 1070

The Legal Arizona Workers Act punishes businesses for hiring undocumented workers. But the battle over SB 1070 is looming.

By Jamilah King May 26, 2011

Today the Supreme Court ruled to uphold an Arizona law that punishes businesses for hiring undocumented workers. Yet while the ruling on the four-year-old law is considered by some to be a test run for Arizona’s much-maligned SB 1070, immigrant rights advocates are careful to point out that today’s ruling should not be used as a barometer for the impending federal battle over one of the nation’s harshest anti-immigrant laws.

"Today’s decision is a narrow one that only upholds Arizona’s specific law on employment verification," the ACLU said in a press release. "The decision has nothing to do with SB 1070 or any other state or local immigration laws. We are disappointed with today’s decision, and believe it does not reflect what Congress intended."

The state passed the Legal Arizona Workers Act in 2007. The law allows Arizona to suspend the licenses of businesses that "intentionally or knowingly" violate work-eligibility verification requirement, reports CNN. It also requires businesses to use E-Verify, federal database that’s been the subject of recent controversy. Julianne Hing wrote in February that critics of the program contend that E-verify suffers from serious flaws. A report released by USCIS showed that the system commonly flags workers who later turn out to be authorized to work in the country.

Thursday’s 5-3 ruling is, for now, good news for Governor Jan Brewer and right wing immigration advocates who’ve been aggressively pushing policies that criminalize undocumented immigrants across the country. Meanwhile, the Obama administration argued that the Arizona employer law infringes on federal oversight of immigration issues.

The Supreme Court, however, disagreed. "Arizona has taken the route least likely to cause tension with the 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 to for checking employee status."

Still, attorneys involved in the legal challenge to Arizona’s SB 1070 argue that when it comes to the battle over that state’s infamous immigration law, a different set of legal cards are at play,

"It’s inaccurate to say that this is a litmus test for SB 1070," says Karen Tumlin of the National Immigration Law Center, who added that both the majority and dissenting opinions say that regulating immigration is a federal issue. "The question at the heart of Arizona’s SB 1070 is whether local cops can enforce immigration law, and courts that have considered that to date have said, ‘hold on a minute.’ There’s nothing in today’s Supreme Court decision that would change the fundamental principles of that."

Tulin added: "It would be a mistake for states to take today’s decision as a green light to enact SB 1070 copycats. It’s not a green light to regulate immigration or target immigrants."