Legality Of Immigration Laws Questioned Across U.S.

Legality Of Immigration Laws Questioned Across US

Suffolk lawmakers may have to re-examine a number of initiatives that have been passed about the legal status of workers in the county, following a ruling in Oklahoma regarding similar legislation.

By Robert Wargas
Suffolk Life (NY), June 18, 2008

An Oklahoma State law requiring business owners to verify their workers' legal status may be unconstitutional because it interferes with a federal immigration statute, a United States District Court judge ruled last week. The contested law, known as the Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act of 2007, requires that employers doing business with the state use the federal 'E-Verify' program to check new employees' working status – a similar measure to the one the Suffolk County Legislature approved, by a vote of 15-2, on June 10. The resolution was proposed by Majority Leader Jon Cooper (D-Huntington), who could not be reached for comment as of press time.

According to the court's decision, the Oklahoma law is pre-empted by part of the federal Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986, which prohibits 'any state or local law imposing civil or criminal sanctions (other than through licensing and similar laws) upon those who employ, or recruit or refer for a fee for employment, unauthorized aliens.'

The court therefore issued an injunction on the Oklahoma law, halting enforcement of the employer-related portions of it because it is 'substantially likely' that the act is voided by federal stipulations on the employment of unauthorized workers, according to a statement.

The penalties for violating the Oklahoma worker status law would include increased tax rates, the loss of contracts and lawsuits.

'Through harsh civil penalties, the Oklahoma law unfairly shifts the burden of immigration enforcement from government onto the backs of business,' said Robin Conrad, executive vice president of the National Chamber Litigation Center, which represented the US Chamber of Commerce in the case. 'Conflicting state and local immigration laws are overwhelming American businesses.'

The court's decision may raise questions about similar legislation in Suffolk County aimed at placing verification responsibilities in the hands of employers. Last week, the county Legislature gave the green light for an 18-month pilot program, which requires contractors doing business with the county to use E-Verify, even though officials both here and across the nation have blasted the system for its error potential.

'After learning of all the faults of the system, I couldn't find myself voting for it,' said Legislator Ricardo Montano (D-Central Islip). 'Everything I researched told me that it's a bad program.'

Legislator Ed Romaine (R-Riverhead) said that despite his reservations about E-Verify, he voted for the bill because it's a temporary pilot program. 'I have concerns about the accuracy of the program,' he said. 'It's very difficult on the local level to craft legislation like this.'

Nevertheless, other county lawmakers are standing by local immigration laws, including Legislator Brian Beedenbender (D-Centereach), who authored Suffolk's bill requiring all county contracting businesses to affirm their workers' legal status or risk losing their business licenses.

'For every court that says laws like this are bad, there's another court that upholds them,' said Beedenbender. 'There will always be a question of constitutionality.'

He referred to cases in separate states in which local immigration laws, including those dealing with the E-Verify system, have been either rejected or embraced by the courts. In Arizona, for instance, state law requires the use of the E-Verify program. Things are different in Illinois, however, where lawmakers banned its use. That state is now facing a lawsuit from the US Department of Homeland Security, Beedenbender said.

Meanwhile, US President George W. Bush recently issued an executive order mandating that businesses in contract with the federal government use the E-Verify program, as well.

'It wouldn't be the first time these courts have overruled the will of the people,' County Executive Steve Levy said of the Oklahoma case. 'The state or county has the right to place preconditions on any business licensed by the municipality … If the federal government did its job, the states and counties wouldn't have to be stepping in at all.'