WASHINGTON—A divided Supreme Court on Tuesday boosted the ability of states to prosecute undocumented immigrants for identity theft when they provide false social security numbers or other information on job applications.
The court, in a 5-4 opinion by Justice Samuel Alito, reinstated convictions obtained by Kansas prosecutors against three restaurant workers for using other people’s social security numbers on forms given to their employers.
The central question in the case, Kansas v. Garcia, was whether such state prosecutions were barred by a provision of federal immigration law that says any information submitted with federal work-authorization forms can’t be used for state law-enforcement purposes.
Justice Alito, writing for a conservative majority, said the answer was no. The mere fact that Kansas law on identity theft overlapped with federal law “does not even begin to make a case” that the state’s prosecutorial efforts should be pre-empted, he wrote.
“In the present cases, there is certainly no suggestion that the Kansas prosecutions frustrated any federal interests,” Justice Altio said. Joining him in the majority were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
The Trump administration had sided with Kansas in the case, arguing that Congress never meant to carve out an immigration-related exception that would prevent states from enforcing their own identity-theft laws.
In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the court’s liberal wing, said U.S. immigration law gave federal authorities the sole responsibility to police fraud committed to obtain eligibility to work.
The law “reserves to the federal government—and thus takes from the states—the power to prosecute people for misrepresenting material information in an effort to convince their employer that they are authorized to work in this country,” Justice Breyer wrote.
Joining him in dissent were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Tuesday’s ruling overturned a decision of the Kansas Supreme Court, which had thrown out the convictions.