State's Rights?

         Last July, the city council of Hazelton, Pennsylvania passed several ordinances aimed at ridding the city of illegal immigrants, by penalizing employers who hire them and landlords who provide them with homes.  The ordinances were, in part, responses to an increase in violent crime, which town officials blamed on immigration. 

         The ACLU filed suit in federal court; a two week trial in the case concluded last week, and the city’s new rules are suspended pending the judge’s ruling, expected in May or June.  The closely watched case, Lozano v Hazleton, is one of several similar lawsuits recently filed by the ACLU, which reports that more than 80 cities and towns have passed anti-immigrant laws like the ordinances in Hazelton.

         Protesting the scape-goating of immigrants, ACLU attorneys raised numerous constitutional and statutory issues in the Hazelton case, including due process and equal protection claims; but the ACLU primarily argued that the local, anti-immigrant ordinances were pre-empted by federal law.  “Immigration is a federal responsibility and allowing every city and town across American to set their own immigration policies would create a dysfunctional set of dueling rules and regulations,” Vic Walczak, the lead ACLU attorney in the case asserted. The ACLU stressed that the Constitution locates the power to regulate immigration primarily in the federal government and that the Hazelton ordinances conflicted with numerous federal laws.

         In other words, the ACLU has framed this as a federalism case (a case involving the constitutional division of power between federal and state governments.)  But federalism claims often reflect political calculations, not constitutional principles.   Across the political spectrum, people tend to favor states rights when they support the particular state laws at issue and favor federal power, when they support the federal laws.

         So the Hazelton case prompts a question: if a state or locality enacted an immigration law designed to expand (not contract) the rights or services available to undocumented immigrants, would the ACLU oppose it too, arguing that regulation of immigration was an exclusive federal responsibility? Given the organization’s strong immigrant rights program (which I support), it’s hard to imagine the ACLU opposing a state or local law considered pro-immigrant, regardless of concerns about federalism.
         Consider this case:  in 2002, the ACLU
registered its strong opposition to a rule issued by the Immigration and Naturalization Service that prohibited state and local facilities from releasing information about INS detainees in their custody.  The ACLU’s letter of protest relied primarily on the claim that the new rules were issued in violation of federal administrative law, but it also noted that federal law in this case did not preempt state authority.

         The Hazelton case and the 2002 controversy over INS rules are easily distinguished, and I’m not suggesting that the ACLU acted or argued improperly in either of them.  I am simply pointing out the pitfalls and politics of federalism arguments.  Take the gay marriage debate.  The federal government enacted an anti-gay marriage law in 1996 (the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA,) so naturally proponents of same-sex marriage are state's rights proponents, when marriage is at issue.  Gay rights and civil liberties groups worked hard to defeat a federal constitutional amendment that would have barred the states from legalizing same sex marriage.

         One result of the differences in state and federal law is a two tiered system of marriage in Massachusetts, which is arguably the sort of “dueling” legal scheme that the principle of preemption is supposed to avoid.   In Massachusetts, gay couples enjoy rights accorded all married couples by state law, but they do not enjoy the rights extended to heterosexual couples under federal law, like social security benefits.  In other words, because of the restrictions in federal law, Massachusetts can only offer separate and unequal marriages to gay couples.

         Of course, as a practical matter, a lesser form of marriage for gay people is preferable to no form of marriage at all.   And, as a practical matter, if the legal situation were reversed, with federal law favoring gay marriage and state law opposing it, you can be sure that pro-marriage groups would no longer favor state’s rights; instead they’d argue that state bans on gay marriage were preempted by federal law.  And who could blame them?  The “principle” of federalism is no match for the politics.

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