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Arizona illegal immigrant employment law before Supreme Court

A 2007 Arizona law revokes the license of businesses that knowingly employ an illegal immigrant. The Supreme Court is considering whether the statute is preempted by federal law.

By Staff writer / December 8, 2010

Protesters chanted and held signs showing support for those arrested under Arizona's SB1070 bill.

Ross D. Franklin/AP

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Washington

Arizona’s famously tough stance on illegal immigration was on full display at the US Supreme Court on Wednesday, as the state’s top appellate lawyer urged the justices to uphold a statute that threatens to shut down any business that intentionally hires illegal immigrants.

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“We acknowledge that Congress does have the authority to preempt us, but they left important discretion” open to the states, Arizona Solicitor General Mary O'Grady told the court.

“It is an important part of the balance Congress struck,” she said.

At issue in the case is whether the state’s 2007 immigration-employment law is preempted by federal law.

The case features many similarities to the recent debate over Arizona’s controversial 2010 immigration enforcement law, SB 1070.

Based on questions during oral argument, Arizona may fare better at the high court than it did last summer when a federal judge in Phoenix ruled that major parts of SB 1070 clashed with federal immigration law and were thus preempted and invalid. That decision is pending before a federal appeals court in San Francisco.

The case before the high court on Wednesday involves an older law, the Legal Arizona Workers Act. The 2007 law outlaws knowingly or intentionally hiring an illegal immigrant. Employers that repeatedly violate the statute may lose their license – the business equivalent of the death penalty.

In addition, the law requires businesses to use the federal government’s E-Verify system, a computer database designed to match the social security number and drivers’ license information submitted on an employment application with the same information stored in government records. Under federal law, participation in the E-Verify system is voluntary.

The case, Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting (09-115), is seen as an important test of how much leeway is open to state governments seeking to pass and enforce state laws designed to discourage illegal immigration.

The Obama administration has entered the case on the side of those seeking to invalidate the Arizona law. The administration argues that it is up to the federal government – not the states – to determine immigration policies and priorities.

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