Who controls the nation’s immigration laws? Although the question seems straightforward, the historical picture is mixed, and the text of the U.S. Constitution does not point clearly to the answer. While the Constitution’s text and the various Supreme Court cases interpreting this text suggest that the federal government has the exclusive power to enact and enforce the nation’s immigration laws, state and local authorities still play an important role in the regulation of immigration because they shape the conditions of daily life for immigrants in their jurisdictions.
Federal Immigration Power
Article I, Section 8, clause 4 of the Constitution entrusts the federal legislative branch with the power to “establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization.” This clear textual command for uniformity establishes that the federal government, specifically Congress, is responsible for crafting the laws that determine how and when noncitizens can become naturalized citizens of the United States. But control over naturalization does not necessarily require full control over immigration. And indeed, for the first century of the United States’ existence, many states enacted laws regulating and controlling immigration into their own borders. Various states passed laws aimed at preventing a variety of populations from entering the borders of their states, including individuals with criminal records, people reliant on public assistance, slaves, and free blacks.
It was not until the late 19th century that Congress began to actively regulate immigration, in particular, with measures designed to restrict Chinese immigration. By this time, the Supreme Court had begun to articulate clear limits on state immigration powers. In 1849, with the Passenger Cases, the Supreme Court struck down efforts by New York and Massachusetts to impose a head tax on incoming immigrants. Four justices concluded that such taxes usurped congressional power to regulate commerce under Article I, Section 8, clause 3 of the Constitution. A unanimous court applied the same rationale in 1876, striking down a New York state statute taxing immigrants on incoming vessels in Henderson v. Mayor of New York. A few years later, in 1884, with a decision in the Head Money Cases, the Court for the first time upheld a federal regulation of immigration, also on Commerce Clause grounds.
From that time on, the Court upheld federal immigration regulations against constitutional challenges, although the underlying rationale shifted. With the Chinese Exclusion Case in 1889, the Court began issuing a series of decisions in which it treated congressional power over the regulation of immigration as a virtually unreviewable, plenary power. The Court upheld congressional immigration laws and executive enforcement of those laws against a series of challenges, in spite of their patently discriminatory nature and lack of due process guarantees for noncitizens. The Court repeatedly suggested that this federal power flowed from the federal government’s prerogative to control foreign affairs.
From the late 19th century through the present day, the Supreme Court has upheld almost every federal immigration regulation against constitutional challenge, citing Congress’s plenary power in this area. As Justice Kennedy wrote in the 2012 decision in Arizona v. United States:
The Government of the United States has broad, undoubted power over the subject of immigration and the status of aliens. … This authority rests, in part, on the National Government’s constitutional power to “establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization,” U. S. Const., Art. I, §8, cl. 4, and its inherent power as sovereign to control and conduct relations with foreign nations….
State and Local Immigration Regulation
The Passenger Cases established that states cannot tax immigrants without running afoul of the Commerce Clause. But what about laws that regulate the lives of immigrants in other ways? The Supreme Court has explored limits of the power of state and local governments in a series of immigration-related cases decided over the past century. One of the earliest and clearest decisions in this regard appeared in 1941 with the case of Hines v. Davidowitz, which involved a challenge to a Pennsylvania law that would have required noncitizens to register with the state government and carry a state-issued registration card. At the time the law was passed, there was no comparable federal regulation, although the federal government soon afterward did pass a comprehensive, national law governing the registration requirements for noncitizens in the United States. Even after the passage of the federal law, the Pennsylvania law did not conflict with the federal law; it merely would have required noncitizens to comply with Pennsylvania’s registration provisions as well as those of the federal government. The state of Pennsylvania argued that because their regulation could co-exist with the federal scheme, it was constitutional. The Supreme Court disagreed. Reasoning that the power to regulate noncitizens goes to the heart of the federal government’s power over foreign affairs, the Court struck down Pennsylvania’s alien registration scheme. The Court wrote:
[W]here the federal government, in the exercise of its superior authority in this field [of immigration], has enacted a complete scheme of regulation and has therein provided a standard for the registration of aliens, states cannot, inconsistently with the purpose of Congress, conflict or interfere with, curtail or complement, the federal law, or enforce additional or auxiliary regulation.
The lesson here was clear: the regulation of immigration was a matter for the federal government. Any efforts to regulate immigrants where Congress had regulated—even complementary efforts—were unconstitutional.
In later cases, the Court made clear that there is room for state and local involvement in the regulation of the lives of immigrants, albeit not necessarily in the regulation and enforcement of laws controlling the flow of immigration itself. In DeCanas v. Bica (1976), the question before the Court was whether a California law that imposed sanctions on employers who hired noncitizens unauthorized to work in the United States infringed on federal immigration powers. The Court rejected the challenge to the California law, concluding that, in the absence of a comprehensive federal scheme to regulate the employment of unauthorized workers, California’s law was not preempted by federal immigration law. DeCanas acknowledged the power of states to regulate immigration-related matters that fall under the states’ traditional police powers, provided the states’ laws do not conflict with federal immigration law.
Between 1976 and 2011, the Supreme Court did not take up the question of sub-federal regulations of immigration again. This did not mean, however, that states and localities were staying out of the business of regulating immigrants. In 1994, a majority of California voters passed Proposition 187, an initiative designed to prevent noncitizens living in the state without legal authorization from accessing a variety of benefits, including state-funded health care and education programs. A federal district court in California enjoined the Proposition in the case of LULAC v. Wilson (1995), concluding that the state had no authority to regulate immigration in this way because this was a federal prerogative.
As the unauthorized immigrant population grew in the United States, and as Congress continued to stalemate on efforts to enact comprehensive federal legislation to reform the nation’s immigration laws, some states and localities took more matters into their own hands. Monica Varsanyi traces the increase of legislation in her book Taking Local Control: Immigration Policy Activism in U.S. Cities and States (Stanford: 2010):
In 2005, according to the Immigration Policy Project of the National Conference of State Legislators, state legislatures considered approximately 300 immigration and immigration-related bills and passed around 50. In 2006, 500 bills were considered, 84 of which became law. In 2007, 1,562 immigration and immigrant-related pieces of legislation were introduced and 240 became law. And…in 2009, approximately 1,500 laws and resolutions were considered in all 50 state legislatures, and 353 were enacted.
The laws in question included restrictionist provisions such as measures designed to bar unauthorized noncitizens from housing and employment, as well as integrationist measures increasing immigrant eligibility for state benefits such as health insurance and English language education. The spate of state and local regulations on this wide range of immigration-related issues prompted the Supreme Court to again attempt to delineate the power of sub-federal entities to regulate immigration in two recent cases. In both of these cases, the Court acknowledged that states can play some role in regulating the lives of immigrants, even as it reaffirmed federal primacy in the regulation of immigration.
The first case, which the Court ruled on in 2011, Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting, involved a challenge to an Arizona state law, the Legal Arizona Workers Act (LAWA), which allows the superior courts of Arizona to suspend or revoke the business licenses of employers who knowingly hire unauthorized noncitizen workers. The Chamber of Commerce of the United States and various business and civil rights organizations sued to prohibit the law on the grounds that it was expressly preempted by federal immigration regulations. They cited the provisions of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), which created a fairly comprehensive federal statutory scheme requiring employers to maintain records of employees’ work eligibility, penalizing employers who hire unauthorized workers, and protecting authorized workers from discriminatory hiring practices.
The Supreme Court disagreed. Instead, the Court noted that IRCA includes a clause that expressly allows for state regulation of the employment of unauthorized workers through “licensing and similar laws.” The Court found that LAWA was a state licensing law expressly permitted by Congress in the text of IRCA. So while states cannot impose civil or criminal penalties on individuals or entities that hire immigrant workers lacking federal work authorization, they can use their licensing powers to address the same problem.
Federal, State, and Local Relationships
Amid all of this, the federal government has historically involved state and local officials in enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws, especially when public opposition to immigration grows. In the 1930s, during the height of the Great Depression, a number of city and state governments became actively involved in rounding up and removing Mexicans, and Mexican Americans, to Mexico.
In recent years, the federal government has increasingly sought to develop relationships with state and local officials, sometimes against the will of officials in some jurisdictions. Some state and county governments have entered into voluntary agreements with the federal government, known as 287(g) agreements, which allow their agents to investigate the immigration status of individuals in their jurisdiction and to enforce immigration laws under the supervision of federal authorities. The federal government has also attempted to actively engage all state and local law enforcement in immigration policing indirectly, through a program called Secure Communities. As described by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE):
For decades, local jurisdictions have shared the fingerprints of individuals who are arrested or booked into custody with the FBI to see if they have a criminal record. Under Secure Communities, the FBI automatically sends the fingerprints to DHS to check against its immigration databases. If these checks reveal that an individual is unlawfully present in the United States or otherwise removable due to a criminal conviction, ICE takes enforcement action….
This program thus attempts to leverage the policing powers of states and localities to federal law enforcement ends. Some communities have attempted to resist participation in the Secure Communities program, raising questions about the federal government’s power to require the participation of states and localities in these initiatives.
Immigration Enforcement at the Supreme Court Again
The Supreme Court’s most recent foray into immigration enforcement came with the case of Arizona v. United States, which involved a challenge to Arizona’s S.B. 1070, a 2010 law that was expressly intended “to discourage and deter the unlawful entry and presence of aliens and economic activity by persons unlawfully present in the United States.” The law created or amended four sections of Arizona state law so as to effectively create criminal liability for being present in the United States without authorization. Although proponents of the law argued that it merely “mirrored” federal immigration law, the law criminalized conduct that is not criminalized under federal law, and it created more severe penalties for some conduct penalized already under federal law.
S.B. 1070 generated a media firestorm, a maelstrom of public criticism and protest, as well as an outpouring of vocal support. It also became the focal point for broader discussions of the validity of state and local immigration regulation and enforcement, as a number of states and cities enacted provisions that copied and even expanded upon the Arizona law.
The Court struck down three provisions of the law in 2012, including a provision that would have required noncitizens to face state penalties for failing to carry proof of their lawful status. The majority cited Hines v. Davidowitz, and noted that Congress had already enacted comprehensive regulations in the area of noncitizens’ registration requirements. The Court also struck down a provision that would have criminalized individuals for working without legal authorization. The Court noted that Congress had enacted a comprehensive scheme for the regulation of unauthorized workers with the passage of IRCA, and that Congress had rejected the incorporation of criminal sanctions for workers. Therefore, the Court reasoned, attempts to criminalize workers conflicted with the objectives of federal law. Finally, the Court struck down a provision that would have allowed Arizona law enforcement officials to conduct arrests of noncitizens where they had probable cause to believe the noncitizen had committed an offense that would make them deportable. The Court observed that even federal immigration officers do not necessarily have the authority to arrest someone upon having such probable cause, and that this provision of S.B. 1070 gave Arizona’s officials “greater authority to arrest aliens on the basis of possible removability than Congress has given to trained immigration officers.” The Court concluded that the result would be “unnecessary harassment of some aliens … whom federal officials determine should not be removed.”
The Court did not strike down the entire Arizona law, however. The Court upheld the provision that allows state and local law enforcement to check an individual’s immigration status by contacting the federal government whenever that individual is already detained lawfully (on nonimmigration grounds) by law enforcement and the officer has reason to believe that the individual is unlawfully present in the United States. Consequently, if a state or local officer in Arizona makes a lawful stop in the course of their ordinary duties, and develops reasonable suspicion about a person’s immigration status, they are now required by Arizona law to contact the federal government to ascertain immigration status whenever practicable. However, the Supreme Court was very clear that these immigration checks could not prolong a stop beyond the time for which it would otherwise be authorized absent the immigration check, and that the ultimate power to determine immigration status rested with the federal government.
Federal Primacy, Local Power
In the wake of the Court’s decision in Arizona, lower courts declared a number of other state and local statutes, including laws in South Carolina and Georgia and local ordinances in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, and Farmer’s Branch, Texas, unconstitutional. But these rulings have not ended state or local involvement in regulating the lives of immigrants. Since 1996, states have been authorized by federal law to deny noncitizens present without legal authorization many forms of state benefits. Consequently, many states now deny all but the most basic emergency services to undocumented residents. State and local law enforcement officials also have broad discretion in how they enforce laws. In some jurisdictions, general criminal law provisions are enforced in ways that target noncitizens, thereby operating as a form of indirect immigration policing.
Finally, various states and localities resist particular federal immigration directives. For example, in 2012, the Department of Homeland Security began a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA not only defers any formal removal proceedings against certain eligible noncitizens, but it also allows those noncitizens to receive federal work authorization and apply for driver’s licenses. However, it is the states, not the federal government, that issue driver’s licenses, and at least two states, Nebraska and Arizona, have resisted providing DACA recipients with driver’s licenses. On the other side of the equation, several states and localities have indicated their unwillingness to participate in the federal Secure Communities program, and have declined to comply with ICE requests to prolong the detention of certain noncitizens pending transfer to federal authorities.
In short, although there is a uniform federal immigration law, and although the Supreme Court has declared unequivocally for over a century that the federal government has the exclusive power to make and enforce that law, the policies and practices of state and local governments throughout the country continue to shape the lived experience of the immigrants within their jurisdiction. Notwithstanding the letter of the law, federal immigration law is always mediated by powerful intervening forces at the state and local level.