SALT LAKE CITY — A U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding an Arizona law that penalizes business for hiring illegal immigrants could put some weight behind a similar measure in Utah.
By a 5-3 vote, the court said Thursday that federal immigration law gives states the authority to impose sanctions on employers who hire undocumented workers. In so doing, it rejected arguments that states have no role in immigration matters.
But Darcy Goddard, an attorney with ACLU of Utah, said it would be wrong to take the ruling as sign of how the Supreme Court may view other immigration enforcement laws such as HB497 in Utah and SB1070 in Arizona. Both are facing legal challenges.
"It's actually a very narrow decision," she said, adding it only deals with employment verification and business licenses.
Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, who proposed his own employer-sanctions bill this year, said the ruling supports what he has maintained all along. "A state does have the ability to control whether it gives a business license or not," he said.
An Salt Lake immigration attorney said the decision could prompt other states to pass immigration-related laws.
"I think what this will do is continue to fan the flames of states enacting immigration reform, specifically in the area of mandating E-Verify," said Roger Tsai, Utah chairman of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. But that could lead to an "incomprehensible and incongruent patchwork" of laws.
Utah currently requires businesses with 15 or more employees to use the federal E-Verify system to check their workers' immigration status. But there is no penalty for not using the system or having undocumented people on the payroll.
Earlier this year, lawmakers approved the controversial HB116, which would create a state-run guest worker program and its own method for checking immigration status called U-Verify.
Employers who hire workers who do not have a guest worker permit would face sanctions. A business could be fined $100 per illegal worker on the first offense, $500 on the second and could have its license revoked for a year or pay a $10,000 fine on the third offense.
That bill, which has been condemned as unconstitutional on several fronts, isn't scheduled to take effect until July 2013 or within 120 days of receiving a waiver from the federal government. Critics doubt a waiver will be issued. The bill also faces the likelihood of a lawsuit as the implementation date approaches.
"I don't expect HB116 to be in effect anytime soon or ever," Tsai said.
The Department of Homeland Security spends tens of millions of dollars policing E-Verify. The Utah bill charges the state Department of Public Safety with that duty.
"If Utah actually wants to do this, it's going to take considerable resources," he said.
Goddard said given that the guest worker program will never come about, the Supreme Court ruling will be irrelevant in the end.
Herrod, though, said he might resurrect his more strident employer verification bill next year in light of the court decision. To his dismay, a watered-down version was folded into HB116.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said the 2007 Arizona employer sanctions law "falls within the confines of the authority Congress chose to leave to the states."
In the dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer said the measure upsets a balance in federal law between dissuading employers from hiring illegal workers and ensuring that people are not discriminated against because they may speak with an accent or look like they might be immigrants.
Employers "will hesitate to hire those they fear will turn out to lack the right to work in the United States," he wrote.
Contributing: Associated Press