Enactment of Arizona’s controversial immigration law in 2010 inspired a number of other states to pass their own, similar immigration laws. The federal government, civil rights groups and private citizens promptly brought litigation challenging these laws. On June 25, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down three of four provisions of the Arizona law on the grounds that they interfered with federal law and authority. Arizona v. United States, 132 S. Ct. 2492 (2012). Now the challenges against other states’ immigration laws are winding their way through the courts.

The case against the Georgia law went up to the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which released its decision on August 20, 2012. The Court, relying heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, struck a provision relating to the transportation, concealing, or harboring an illegal alien as preempted by federal law, but upheld the provision authorizing law enforcement officers to investigate a suspect’s immigration status (though it kept the door open for a challenge if the application of the law was unconstitutional).

Background

In April 2011, Georgia enacted House Bill 87, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act (H.B. 87). Opponents of the law quickly challenged its constitutionality in federal court. On June 27, 2011, the District Court ruled and left intact provisions requiring E-Verify, imposing heavy fines for the use of fake identification to obtain employment, and requiring certain forms of identification to obtain public benefits. However, it issued an injunction on two provisions of the law: One requiring law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of suspects who cannot provide identification and the other punishing suspects who intentionally transport or house someone in the country illegally. The District Court found these provisions were preempted by federal law.

Eleventh Circuit Decision

On August 20, 2012, in Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, et al. v. Governor of Georgia, et al., No. 11-13044, the Eleventh Circuit, relying heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Arizona v. United States, found that Section 7, dealing with the transportation, concealing, or harboring an illegal alien is preempted by federal law. The Court found that the breadth of the federal immigration regulations under the Immigration and Nationality Act cover the field of regulating immigration, so that state laws were not permissible, regardless of whether they complemented the federal law. The Court went as far as to note that this section presented an obstacle to the execution of federal law.

Section 8, authorizing law enforcement officers to investigate a suspect’s immigration status (nicknamed the “show-me-your-papers law”) was upheld. This ruling was not surprising as a similar provision in the Arizona law was upheld by the Supreme Court. The Eleventh Circuit, however, reiterating the same concerns as the Supreme Court, noted the law may lead to racial profiling, but it pointed out that “reliance on race, color, or national origin that is constitutionally prohibited is expressly forbidden by the Georgia statute.” The Court continued its rationale in upholding the provision by stating that “it is inappropriate for us to assume that the state will disregard its own law,” and kept the door open for a challenge if the application of the law was unconstitutional.

The decision may affect employers in Georgia that have a large foreign national workforce. If a foreign national is lawfully stopped and cannot show documentation of his or her status, law enforcement officers can now detain that individual and check his or her status against federal immigration databases.

Implications

State immigration laws will likely be reined in further as other courts move on their cases. It is clear from the Supreme Court ruling that state laws that encroach on federal laws in place to protect the country must be struck. In the words of the Eleventh Circuit, “We must recognize the supremacy of the federal law.”