Posted by on October 18, 2013 in Blog

By Maha Sayed
Legal Fellow

Louisiana Supreme Court Strikes Down Anti-Immigrant Law

The Louisiana Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a state law that criminalized non-citizens for driving without proof that they are lawfully present in the United States. The law, Section 14:100.13, punished immigrants for failing to carry documentation establishing their lawful status while operating a vehicle, and carried a sentence of up to one year of prison with hard labor and a one thousand dollar fine. The Louisiana legislature enacted the law in 2002 in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, as a part of a series of laws intended to prevent terrorism on the highways. However, the law has been heavily criticized for its systematic racial profiling of the Latino community, and for failing to further the stated purpose of preventing acts of terrorism.

The court ruled that the Louisiana law is preempted by federal law that exclusively regulates the field of alien registration and punishment for noncompliance, and thus violates the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The Supremacy Clause provides that federal law preempts state law when federal law ‘occupies the field’ or when state law stands as an obstacle to its purpose or objectives. Relying on the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision Arizona v. United States, the Louisiana court held that by requiring aliens to carry documentation of their lawful presence while driving, the Louisiana law operates “squarely in the field of alien registration” and therefore impermissibly intrudes upon the federal regulatory scheme. The court also emphasized that the harsh penalty provisions of the law conflict with the existing framework of sanctions enacted by Congress and “underscore[s] the reason for field preemption.” Two Justices dissented from the ruling, which could potentially be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Following the landmark holding in Arizona, which invalidated key provisions of that state’s anti-immigrant law, S.B. 1070, similar measures by states across the country will likely continue to face constitutional challenges. In addition to the increasing rise of state anti-immigrant legislation, the House Judiciary Committee approved the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement (SAFE) Act in June 2013, which significantly expands state and local participation in the enforcement of federal immigration laws and threatens to hinder the federal immigration regulatory scheme. The SAFE Act contains several troubling provisions that authorize states and localities to formulate, implement, and enforce distinct criminal and civil penalties for federal immigration violations, and give state and local law enforcement the power to investigate, identify, and arrest individuals in violation of immigration laws. These provisions have the potential to increase racial profiling and improper detentions, while simultaneously diverting limited public resources and thus undermining the ability of state and local law enforcement to maintain community safety. Furthermore, such expansive grants of authority to state and local officials necessarily interfere into the sphere of immigration regulation and enforcement, traditionally controlled by the federal government.

Anti-immigrant measures that seek to impose harsh criminal penalties on non-citizens and unconstitutionally intrude upon federal immigration law do not advance the imminent need for national immigration reform and potentially obstruct equal protection rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The Louisiana Supreme Court made a good decision this week, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

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