WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday in a case challenging President Obama’s immigration policies that could have broad implications for businesses and the American economy as a whole.
The high court heard the case of the United States v. Texas, in which the federal government is seeking to overturn a preliminary injunction and put in place immigration programs that could temporarily make about 4 million immigrants eligible to live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation.
The justices seemed divided during arguments on Monday, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito pressing Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. about the administration’s designation of a category of “lawfully present” undocumented workers and whether it legally binds states to provide benefits to them, such as driver’s licenses.
Obama issued an executive order in November 2014 instructing the Department of Homeland Security to expand the eligibility of people living here illegally to live and work in the U.S. and receive some government benefits, such as a driver’s license or Social Security benefits, without being subject to deportation for a minimum of three years.
The executive orders would create a new program applying to parents who have children that are legal citizens and expand an existing initiative for children brought to the U.S. illegally.
Several business groups and companies have come out in support of the new Obama immigration policy, which represents an effort by the administration to use executive authority to enact reforms and defer deportations in the absence of Congressional action on an overhaul of the immigration system. The issue has become a lightning rod on Capitol Hill and in the presidential race.
But 26 states led by Texas asserted they would suffer injury, and sued to block the policy. They won a temporary injunction in February 2015 from a U.S. District Court judge who enjoined the new policies from taking effect.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the injunction in November and the U.S. filed its appeal to the Supreme Court in November.
In a brief filed at the high court, 63 businesses, including American Apparel, argued in favor of the Obama administration, arguing that policies that “deny undocumented individuals lawful opportunities to contribute to the economy harm U.S. businesses, contribute to labor shortages and hold back economic growth.”
At the bottom of the brief among the listed companies, American Apparel said it employs 7,800 workers worldwide and over 4,500 in the Los Angeles area.
“American Apparel supports changes to U.S. immigration polices because many talented and experienced individuals could become available to American Apparel and other companies under the challenged immigration guidance,” the company stated.
Deferred action programs, such as the one the U.S. is seeking to expand, reduce uncertainty for U.S. businesses, which face penalties for the use of unauthorized workers, and allow them to contribute to the U.S. economy, they argued.
“The business community would benefit from policies that afford undocumented individuals — approximately 11 million of whom live in the United States — lawful opportunities to contribute to the American economy,” they stated in the brief. “Conversely, the failure of our political system to make progress on modernizing our nation’s immigration system has made it harder for U.S. businesses to compete in the global marketplace,” they said, urging the high court to allow the new Obama initiatives to be implemented.
They argued that the large class of unauthorized workers — which they estimated to be over 5 percent of the U.S. workforce — is subjected to abuse from unscrupulous employers who refuse to pay minimum wage or fail to comply with safety standards.
The use of undocumented workers and the government’s scrutiny of it has long been a contentious issue in the U.S. apparel industry.
California has a large apparel manufacturing base and is in close proximity to Mexico, while New York also has a sizable apparel manufacturing base.
A coalition of California businesses, civic, educational and religious leaders asserted in another brief that the administration’s “policies at issue would complement and fortify the sound policies that California has already adopted with respect to undocumented immigrants” and added that “ the district court’s injunction is particularly injurious to California’s public interest.”
They said California’s economic growth has “depended to a significant degree on undocumented workers.”
Undocumented immigrants, representing just 7 percent of the state’s population, make up 34 percent of its farm workers, 22 percent of its production workers, and 21 percent of its construction workers, according to one estimate, they argued, while other estimates placed those figures even higher.
“Today, the undocumented workforce alone contributes $130 billion to California’s gross domestic product — an amount larger than the entire respective GDPs of 19 other states,” the coalition said in the brief, citing a study. “Relegating these undocumented immigrants to an informal economy creates inefficiencies and perverse incentives.”
It depresses wages, “entrenches underemployment and prevents the state’s economy from reaching full productivity,” they noted. “Law-abiding businesses, meanwhile, face competitors that ignore labor and safety laws, knowing that their undocumented workers are unlikely to complain.”