WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court seemed split Wednesday but leaning in favor of an Arizona law that severely penalizes employers that hire illegal immigrants.
Some justices voiced concern that Arizona was infringing on federal power, while others said the state was compelled to act by the enormity of the illegal immigration problem.
"Arizona and other states are in serious trouble financially and for other reasons because of unrestrained illegal immigration," said Justice Antonin Scalia.
Scalia, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel Alito appeared most sympathetic to Arizona's law regulating employers and illegal immigrants. Their fellow conservative, Justice Clarence Thomas, followed his custom of not speaking during the hourlong oral argument.
Some Democratic-appointed justices, though, suggested the 3-year-old Arizona law intruded on federal turf or could lead to anti-Hispanic discrimination. The skeptics focused on whether a 1986 federal immigration law pre-empted individual state action.
"The enforcement of the immigration laws should be uniform; Congress stated that as an overarching principle," said attorney Carter Phillips, arguing on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber joined the American Civil Liberties Union and immigrants rights groups in challenging the Legal Arizona Workers Act of 2007.
Justice Elena Kagan recused herself, and her absence increases the chances the law will be upheld. Kagan was President Barack Obama's solicitor general, and her successor has sided with opponents of the Arizona law. In the event of a 4-to-4 tie among the eight other justices, the lower court's decision will be upheld and the law will remain on the books.
The Arizona law considered by the Supreme Court deals only with enforcement.
The state law contains two main parts. The Supreme Court could end up keeping one and getting rid of the other.
The law, in part, requires Arizona employers to determine worker eligibility through an Internet-based system called E-Verify.
Through E-Verify, employers can quickly match a job applicant's information with Social Security and Department of Homeland Security databases. About 103,000 employers nationwide were registered to use the program last year.
Congress created E-Verify as a voluntary program, under a different name, in 1996, and it remains largely voluntary save for federal contractors.
In addition to the E-Verify requirement, the Arizona law imposes strict penalties on employers that "knowingly or intentionally" hire an illegal immigrant. Guilty employers can have their business licenses suspended or permanently revoked.
Three employers have faced suspension or termination of their business license under the law.