Supreme Court Declines Alabama Immigration Law Appeal

The Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by the State of Alabama, and will not listen to arguments about the recently blocked immigration law - leaving the ban imposed by a lower federal court in effect.  The law, which imposes criminal penalties on people who transport or harbor illegal immigrants, or induce them to live in the state, was shot down by the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in August 2012 for conflicting with federal law.  As is custom, the Supreme Court did not provide explanation for denying the appeal.

Lower Court Bans Alabama Immigration Law

The Obama administration challenged the Alabama law in the US Court of Appeals last August, arguing that it conflicted with federal law.  The Court of Appeals agreed with the US Attorneys’ office, and declared that existing federal legislation “comprehensively addresses criminal penalties for these actions undertaken within the borders of the United States, and a state’s attempt to intrude into this area is prohibited because Congress has adopted a calibrated framework.”  Although federal law does not impose the same degree of strict penalties as Alabama’s legislation, the Court of Appeals found the State’s aggressive stance on immigration infringed on the authority of the federal government to enact and enforce immigration policy.

Supreme Court and Arizona Immigration Decisions

The latest decision to decline Alabama’s appeal sits in a growing line of judicial decisions about state immigration laws, although it is the first to not arise out of Arizona.  In 2010, the Supremes ruled on a controversial Arizona law – unanimously upholding the provision that allowed police to check citizenship papers to ensure legal citizenship, but rejecting three others including one that forbid illegal immigrants from seeking employment.  In that decision, the Supreme Court allowed Arizona to enact a law that determined how the State chooses to enforce existing federal immigration policy, but declined the state the right to determine what behavior was illegal.

In 2011, this distinction again seemed important when the Supreme Court ruled on a separate Arizona law, deciding to uphold a provision that punished business for hiring illegal workers with notably harsh penalties.  In allowing that law, Chief Justice Roberts wrote that Arizona’s law was simply enforcing existing federal policy which banned hiring illegal immigrants.

Supreme Court Defers Immigration to Congress

Although the Court did not give its reason for declining to hear the Alabama appeal, doing so is a tacit statement that the judiciary's legal position on state immigration laws is clear: states have some latitude when deciding how harshly to punish or how strictly to enforce existing federal legislation, however, a state may not expand the reach of immigration law.  In the case of Alabama’s recent law the Court of Appeals, echoing SCOTUS’ tone, found that the state legislature had over-stepped the line between existing policy and new law - making it unconstitutional.  Unlike permissible portions of Arizona’s immigration law, which do not expand the definition of criminal behavior, Alabama’s law encroached upon the federal government’s authority to determine what is, and is not, illegal.

The Supreme Court has taken the position, and lower courts have received the message, that states are not permitted to expand immigration policy. The Justices have rightly decided that the power to determine what behavior constitutes criminal involvement in illegal immigration rests solely with the federal government, and neither states nor the judicial branch have the authority to create, or approve of, laws infringing on this responsibility. Although recent Congressional contentiousness would suggest that immigration reform seems impossible, impatient states are not authorized to take the matter outside of DC – no matter how strong their convictions otherwise.  As states become increasingly aggressive in the passage of immigration law, the Supreme Court’s recent activity sets forth an important guide to legislators and judges across the country, and, regardless of personal opinions on immigration, it is satisfying to note that, on this matter, one branch of the federal government seems to have set forth a clear and Constitutionally supported directive.

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