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Arizona’s overreach

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear a challenge to an Arizona immigration law, but not the notorious one that requires police to check the immigration status of people they detain and suspect of being illegal. The law the court will take up, which is aimed at employers that hire illegal workers, is much less objectionable as a matter of policy. But, like the more infamous statute, it encroaches on the authority of the federal government to regulate immigration. The justices should strike it down.

The Legal Arizona Workers Act aims to accomplish something everyone in the immigration debate claims to want: a crackdown on employers who encourage illegal immigration with lax hiring policies. The law would punish employers who hire illegal workers with a series of penalties leading up to a revocation of the company’s charter or articles of incorporation, effectively closing the business down. Also, the law requires employers to check the status of prospective employees by using E-Verify, an Internet-based documentation system.

Although one could quibble with the specific sanctions in the Arizona law, the idea of penalizing employers who hire illegal workers is essential to effective enforcement of immigration laws, with or without enactment of comprehensive immigration reform. It’s also vital that there be an expeditious way to check a worker’s status. E-Verify may not be perfect, but some such system is necessary.

The problem with the Arizona law is that the state is seeking to legislate in an area reserved to the federal government. As the Obama administration pointed out in its brief, Arizona’s procedures conflict with federal procedures for dealing with the hiring of illegal workers. And by making the use of E-Verify mandatory, the state overrode a decision by Congress that — with rare exceptions — use of the system be voluntary.

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In defending its statute, Arizona cites language in federal law allowing states to legislate in immigration matters involving “licensing and similar laws.” But the Obama administration argues that this is a licensing law in name only. “No licenses are issued under the statute, and it does not regulate licensees’ professional conduct or fitness to do a particular business,” the administration says in its brief. “It only imposes punishment, and only for violation of a single, across-the-board rule.”

Like its other, more objectionable immigration law, Arizona’s law cracking down on the hiring of illegal workers claims for the state authority that properly belongs to Congress. The court should therefore overturn it. But the frustration felt in Arizona — and elsewhere — over lackluster federal enforcement of immigration law should lead Congress to exercise its authority and approve stricter sanctions.


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