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Supreme Court Wrestles With Arizona Immigration Law

Who has the right to make laws regarding immigration, the federal government or the states? Do the states have the right to make their own laws if the federal government isn't enforcing its own? These are some of the questions the U.S. Supreme Court will be facing this term when it referees a fight between the United States and Arizona over the Legal Arizona Workers Act, which was signed into law by former Arizona governor Janet Napolitano. Interestingly, Napolitano now works for the federal government as the Secretary of Homeland Security. The case, Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting, is now pending before the nation's highest court.

Arizona's Controversial Law

The Legal Arizona Workers Act requires Arizona law enforcement agencies to check the immigration of status of people during traffic stops. It also imposes tough sanctions on employers who hire illegal workers. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and several other business, labor, and civil rights organization sued to block the act. The federal government, who asserts it has exclusive control over immigration enforcement, has joined them.

The decision in the case will probably be printed in constitutional law books for years to come. Just how far does the federal government's exclusive control go? What can the states do, if anything, if the federal government isn't enforcing the law? Can states pull the business licenses of companies who hire illegal aliens?

Other States Watching Closely

Many states other than Arizona are watching this case with interest, as well. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 44 states presently have legislation pending on the immigration issue. Even some smaller municipalities within states are waiting to see if they can enact similar immigration laws. Hazleton, Penn., saw an ordinance that fined landlords who did business with illegal aliens struck down. If Arizona wins, Hazleton might be able to put its law back on the books.

Although the 1986 Immigration and Reform and Control Act specifically provides that any state or local law that imposes penalties on businesses for dealing with aliens is preempted by federal law, it has an exception for "licensing" laws. Arizona claims that its act is a licensing law since it revokes the license to do business in the state for repeated violations. The battle lines have been drawn, and the Supreme Court will have to decide. The name Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting may be familiar to thousands of law students very soon.