Supreme Court Permits State Reach into Areas Previously Preempted by Federal Law
Dallas, TX (Law Firm Newswire) April 13, 2020 – The U.S. Supreme Court decided in a March 3, 2020, decision that federal law does not preempt a state’s ability to prosecute individuals for providing false information when seeking employment. The court sided with Kansas in Kansas v. Garcia, 17-834, in deciding that the state could convict undocumented immigrants under its identity theft laws without interfering with federal immigration laws.
The case concerned Ramiro Garcia and two other undocumented individuals who used stolen Social Security numbers to get jobs. All three were convicted of identity theft under Kansas laws after being charged with making false statements in federal I-9 forms and state tax-withholding forms. The Kansas Supreme Court threw out all three convictions, holding that the state law intruded on the federal government’s exclusive authority to decide whether a person was eligible for employment in the United States under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). The U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling overturned the state decision.
“When faced with the choice of observing an overall federal design in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act as it applies to criminalizing working without authorization and holding to federal preemption of the field, or permitting the states to occupy the field concurrently, the majority saw no conflict sharing the field with the states,” commented Stewart Rabinowitz of the Dallas and Frisco law firm of Rabinowitz & Rabinowitz, P.C. “And by holding that states may criminalize certain conduct and use information contained in a federal I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification document in state prosecutions, the Court has opened the door to employers and non-citizens facing actions enacted by state criminal statutes.”
A majority of the U.S. Supreme Court’s justices decided that the immigrants could be prosecuted for making false statements under Kansas law as it was not preempted by the IRCA. The majority sided with Kansas’s argument that although its prosecution relied on information submitted in federal I-9 forms, the same information had been provided in state work forms. As a result, the state prosecution could have proceeded without reliance on federal forms.
In a dissent written on behalf of the court’s four justices, Justice Stephen Breyer stated that the decision “opens a colossal loophole” as federal immigration law specifies that only the federal government has the power to prosecute individuals for federal work authorization violations. He noted that the IRCA preempts the state’s use of its tax-withholding forms for prosecution as an employee’s submission of a false Social Security number on an I-9 form is already a federal offense.
While federal law generally preempts state law when it comes to immigration, the Trump administration has supported Kansas in the case, maintaining that there was no clash between state and federal laws. The Supreme Court decision has broader implications for the prosecution of immigrants and employers at the state level. It may encourage states to assume a more active role in immigration enforcement by using identity laws and similar statutes to target undocumented workers for prosecution.