elephants.jpgThe U.S. Supreme Court freed a herd of immigration “elephants [hiding] in a mousehole” on May 26. That’s when five Justices used a four-word exception to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) — an act which, among its extensive provisions, banned the employment of foreign citizens whom the employer knows lack work permission — to trample the immigration landscape. The majority ruled, based on the exception, that IRCA is not the final or sole word on the extent of punishment for unauthorized employment. 

Relying on an IRCA exception for “licensing and similar laws,” the 5-3 majority decided that Arizona may use the threat to revoke a business license as a means to punish AZ employers for the unauthorized hiring of foreigners and to require all the state’s public and private employers to enroll in the Feds’ E-Verify online work-clearance database. 

Among the dissenters, Justice Sonia Sotomayor challenged the use of this squib of an IRCA exception as a means for the majority to undermine the “carefully constructed [and] uniform federal scheme for determining [unauthorized employment].” She cited an earlier case which observed that Congress “does not . . . hide elephants in mouseholes.” (Ironically and perhaps poetically just, all of the Justices in the majority had been appointed by presidents of the Republican party, whose avatar is the pachyderm.)

What does the decision, U.S. Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting, mean for large and small employers?  Here are my predictions (I welcome any comments or critiques below or on my Twitter page): 

1.  Expect that mandatory E-Verify will spread to more states. As shown in this link, states are all over the map on their divergent requirements concerning E-Verify. Some — like AZ, SC and MS — require it of all employers.  Others limit it to public entities and state contractors.  The Supreme Court’s decision essentially green lights the states to regulate facets of immigration compliance that fall within traditional state police powers. The only requirement is that the state law find a connection to the broad police power over licensing. In essence, what was largely an exclusively federal domain, will now expand — with the Court’s blessing — into the inner workings of most businesses. Expect state and city micro-management of immigration to the Nth degree. 

2.  Expect some states to require E-Verify use as to current workers. As many states rush to enact laws mandating E-Verify, it would not be surprising if one or more extend its scope.  Except for certain federal contractors and subs, E-Verify may not now be used to verify the work eligibility of current employees.  While the extension of E-Verify at the state level to current workers would technically violate the terms of the E-Verify Memorandum of Understanding that employers must sign, such a stretch would not be a surprise.  Consider Utah’s recent legislation which adopted a guest worker program notwithstanding that — at least until the Whiting decision — the authorization to grant work permission had been seen as exclusively a federal power. Note as well that Florida’s governor has issued an executive order expressly encouraging the state’s employers to use E-Verify to check the work status of current employees.

3.  Expect higher rates of discrimination claims.  The dissenters in Whiting predict that employers will follow the path of seemingly least resistance by becoming hyper-vigilant in inspecting job applicants’ documents of identity and work eligibility while finding subtle or overt ways to resist hiring persons who look or sound foreign or demanding to see specific documents or more documents than legally required.  Although the majority noted that such discriminatory acts are already prohibited at the federal level, the likelihood is that the immigration agency charged with antidiscrimination prosecution and enforcement will be understaffed and short on resources to deal with the anticipated flood of complaints of unfair or illegal practices.    

4.  Expect more court battles over the extraterritorial reach of state immigration laws.  What happens when poorly phrased state immigration laws come into contact with multi-state employers? Must a multi-state employer use E-Verify only as to its AZ new hires, or does AZ’s E-Verify law require that company to use the online system as to new employees nationwide? What will courts decide if a company chartered in AZ loses its license to do business in that state, and as a result, is disqualified to maintain its licenses to engage in business in other states?  These are but a few of the foreseeable claims likely to congest the state and federal courts as state immigration laws proliferate after Whiting.

5.  Expect a public backlash over state enforcement of the immigration laws.  The devastating tornadoes in Missouri and Alabama likely caused the loss or destruction of many U.S. citizens’ documents of identity and work permission. When such citizens try to pick up their lives by moving to other states (where mandatory E-verify is in force), how will they prove their right to work?  Such citizens are not likely to go gently or quietly into the good night. They will scream to high heaven, and the media will listen and publicize their complaints.  Other citizens, though not facing the effects of natural calamities, will likewise be erroneously rejected by E-Verify, as the National Immigration Law Center predicted last April in testimony before Congress. They too will rise in protest if denied employment to which they are entitled with jobs already hard enough to find in the current economy.  

6.  Expect some states to back away from immigration enforcement and instead seek federal waivers for immigration benefits. Just yesterday, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, perhaps signalling a trend in the opposite direction, expressed his opposition to an AZ-style immigration enforcement bill, noting that it would be “divisive” and bad for business.  As noted above and at length in this blog before, Utah has passed legislation creating a guest worker visa program (that will require a Federal waiver).   

7.  Expect that states will seek more snitch visas or favorable discretion for stool pigeons from the federal government.  The “S” visa category (what we in the trade call the Snitch Visa) allows any state or local law enforcement official to seek special immigration benefits, including a work permit, to allow a foreign citizen to participate as a witness in a criminal prosecution.  Federal immigration authorities can also exercise prosecutorial discretion and grant work permission at the request of a state or local police agency or prosecutor.  In states where immigration policing is a high priority, just as with the justly maligned Secure Communities program, criminal prosecutions under state immigration laws will likely generate requests for special privileges and leniency to foreign workers who agree to rat out alleged immigration violations of their employers.

8. Expect a battle royal in Congress over mandatory federal E-Verify. The business and pro-immigrant communities will not take lying down the likely GOP push to make E-Verify mandatory for all employers nationally.  While this push, if enacted, would take the wind out of the states’ sails, opposition to the move would point to the persistently high rates of false positives and negatives in E-Verify and the budget busting consequences of a national mandate.  

9. Expect busier days ahead for immigration lawyers.  Notwithstanding that the demand for H-1B visas this year has been underwhelming, lawyers practicing immigration law have reason to be hopeful that business will pick up.  The already mind-boggling complexity of federal immigration law will become more complicated, perhaps by a factor of 50, as the states get into the act. This quantum leap doesn’t take into account the cities and regional governments that may have politicians, even now, planning a Barletta-like push for fame and higher office by espousing “mouse-that-roared” immigration ordinances.

10.  Expect that Congress or the President will act. Before we reach the point of proliferating and conflicting 50-state and countless-municipal “solutions” to America’s dysfunctional immigration laws, this blogger — always a glass-half-full type — envisions that statesman-like behavior or public outcries will cause action at the federal level to end the nonsense. Businesses cannot function, and lawfully-authorized American citizens and residents cannot find jobs, if we balkanize our immigration polcies. I say, fingers crossed, that cooler heads will prevail.