WASHINGTON The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld an Arizona law that allows the state to shut down businesses that hire illegal immigrants, a ruling arising from the fierce national debate on immigration policy.
By a 5-3 vote, the high court rejected arguments by business and civil rights groups and by the Obama administration that an Arizona employer sanctions law must be struck down for conflicting with federal immigration law.
The decision could spur other states and cities to adopt their own tough anti-immigration measures in the workplace. At least eight other states have laws similar to Arizona's.
The 2007 law upheld by the court is separate from one Arizona adopted last year and criticized by President Barack Obama that required the police to check the immigration status of anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.
A federal judge and then a U.S. appeals court put the newer law's most controversial provisions on hold, and Arizona has vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court. The justices on Thursday gave no hints of their views of the 2010 law.
About 11 million illegal immigrants are believed to be in the United States. Immigration has become a major issue in states such as Arizona on the border with Mexico.
The Arizona law suspends or revokes licenses to do business in the state to penalize employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. It requires employers to use an electronic verification system to check the work-authorization status of employees through federal records.
The Legal Arizona Workers Act was signed into law in 2007 by then governor Janet Napolitano after an overhaul of federal immigration policies died in Congress. The Obama administration and Congress still have been unable to agree on comprehensive new immigration measures.
In a majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court agreed with a federal judge and a U.S. appeals court in upholding the law.
"We hold that Arizona's licensing law falls well within the confines of the authority Congress chose to leave to the states," Roberts wrote. "Arizona has taken the route least likely to cause tension with federal law."
Roberts agreed with Arizona's argument that a comprehensive 1986 federal immigration law made an exception for business licensing laws like the Arizona statute.
Liberal Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
Breyer said the law subjected employers to burdensome sanctions and the risks of erroneous prosecution. He said employers will err on the side of discrimination rather than risk sanctions that could put them out of business.
Roberts disagreed. He said other state and federal laws provided sufficient safeguards against employment discrimination.
"The most rational path for employers is to obey the law -- both the law barring the employment of unauthorized aliens and the law prohibiting discrimination," Roberts said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups that challenged the law, downplayed the ruling's impact.
"Today's decision is a narrow one that only upholds Arizona's specific law on employment verification," said Cecillia Wang of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project. She said the ruling has no bearing on the 2010 Arizona law or on any other state or local immigration laws.
The Supreme Court case is Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting, No. 09-115.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)