The U.S. Supreme Court has heard oral arguments in an important immigration case from the southwestern state of Arizona. At issue is whether Arizona has the right to punish employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens and whether that conflicts with the federal government's responsibility to enforce immigration laws.
Under a state law approved in Arizona in 2007, the state has the right to sanction employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.
But an unusual mix of civil rights and business groups is challenging the state law in court, and the case was presented for oral argument before the Supreme Court.
Critics of the Arizona statute say the state law conflicts with the federal government's traditional role in enforcing immigration laws.
Carter Phillips argued the case against the Arizona law on behalf of a diverse coalition of critics that includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund.
"Congress never imagined that a state would do what Arizona purports to be doing here," said Phillips. "What it is not free to do is create an entire parallel mechanism to enforce what it purports to claim is state law under the guise of enforcing federal law."
More than 40 states are considering various measures on immigration and many of them argue they have been forced to deal with the issue of illegal immigration because the federal government has largely failed to do so.
But the civil rights and business groups opposed to the Arizona law argue that allowing states, cities and towns to enact their own immigration laws would lead to chaos and would undermine federal efforts to get a handle on the problem.
"There cannot be separate state proceedings or separate city proceedings, as Mr. Phillips pointed out, in 40,000 separate cities and towns around the country setting up their own immigration enforcement scheme," said Lucas Guttentag, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Arizona state officials, including the governor and attorney general, attended the oral arguments at the Supreme Court and later spoke to reporters.
Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard says his state is within its rights to impose penalties on businesses who knowingly hire illegal aliens.
"They have provided that ability to the states and the states have always had the police power ability to regulate businesses within their state, and that is exactly what we are doing in Arizona," said Goddard.
The Arizona measure was signed into law in 2007 by then Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano, who now serves as President Barack Obama's Secretary for Homeland Security and is responsible for enforcing federal immigration laws.
Among those supporting the law at the Supreme Court was Arizona's current governor, Jan Brewer, a Republican.
"The bottom line is that we believe that if the government is not going to do the job then Arizona is going to do the job, and we are faced with a crisis," he said. "We are stepping forward in Arizona because the federal government is not doing their job. We have no other choice."
Brewer is also in the forefront of another controversial law in Arizona, one that requires police officers to check the immigration status of people who they suspect may be in the country illegally. That law has sparked an intense national debate over what the states and federal government should do to deal with illegal immigration.
That case is now before a federal appeals court in San Francisco, and many legal experts predict it will eventually wind up before the Supreme Court as well.