By a 5-3 vote Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld an Arizona law that imposes sanctions against businesses that hire illegal immigrants. The court also upheld the state’s law requiring all employers to utilize E-Verify, a federal electronic employment eligibility verification system that had been voluntary nationwide. Leaders of agricultural groups, including American Nursery & Landscape Association (ANLA), were quick to respond to the ruling. What are the implications for greenhouse and nursery growers?
“First, some state legislatures, which have been contemplating such laws but have held back waiting for the high court’s decision, may now proceed,” says Craig Regelbrugge, ANLA’s vice president of government relations and research. “So we may see more states take immigration law into their own hands.”
A few states, like Georgia, did not wait. “Georgia’s law was signed recently by Governor Nathan Deal,” Regelbrugge adds. “Already, it is having a devastating impact on the farm sector. Georgia vegetable growers are reporting the farm worker migrant stream is largely bypassing the state, leading to severe labor shortages that may leave crops rotting in the fields.”
On the federal level, proponents of mandatory E-Verify for all employers are using the law to justify their goals. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith plans to introduce a mandatory E-Verify bill within the next few weeks, and ANLA believes it will pass the House. It may also pass the Senate and become law.
“Mandatory E-Verify would screen out and render unemployable (at least on the books) an estimated 50 to 70 percent of the greenhouse, nursery and farm labor force,” Regelbrugge says. “In the face of this challenge, ANLA is leading the effort to convince Congress to include a workable agricultural visa program as a component of any E-Verify legislation. Such a program must address both future needs and the status of the experienced workforce. Failure to do so will have lasting economic and job-destroying consequences.”
In the majority Supreme Court opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that Congress had preserved the ability of the states to impose their own sanctions and “Arizona’s procedures simply implement the sanctions that Congress expressly allowed Arizona to pursue through licensing laws,” adding that the Arizona law “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 for checking employee status.”
Roberts was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor dissented. Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the case because of her previous job as solicitor general in the Obama administration, which had opposed the law.
Arizona passed the Legal Arizona Workers Act in 2007, which allowed Arizona to suspend the licenses of businesses that “intentionally or knowingly” violate work-eligibility verification requirements. Under the Arizona law, companies would be required to use the federal E-Verify database to check the documentation of current and prospective employees. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit against Arizona, arguing federal law prohibits Arizona and other states from making E-Verify use mandatory.
The likely impact of the court’s decision is additional states may move to copy Arizona’s law and look to implement E-Verify on their own. There may also be renewed enthusiasm in the nation’s capitol to pass a mandatory E-Verify law.
As news of the ruling spread through the state, many merchants and business leaders expressed resignation, the Arizona Republic reported. Several business groups argued the employer sanctions legal battle underscores the need for comprehensive federal immigration reform. “We were disappointed, and we still believe the right place to handle issues related to immigration is on the federal level,” Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told the newspaper. The chamber was a plaintiff in the case. “If there is a silver lining, it is this will increase the pressure on the Congress and the administration to do something meaningful in this area,” he added, citing increasing border security and creating workable temporary visa programs for immigrant laborers of all skill levels.
Gov. Jan Brewer and others who back tougher immigration laws voiced optimism that the ruling bodes well for Senate Bill 1070, which made it a state crime to be in the country illegally. Passed in 2010, the state’s controversial immigration law started a media firestorm and is also making its way to the Supreme Court. “While SB 1070 and the Legal Arizona Workers Act are obviously different laws,” the governor said in a statement, “I am hopeful and optimistic the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Arizona’s future appeal of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision against SB 1070 and apply the same general principle of federalism by rejecting claims of federal pre-emption.”