Kansas v. Garcia

Certiorari To The Supreme Court Of Kansas

No. 17-834. Argued October 16, 2019--Decided March 3, 2020 1

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) makes it unlawful to hire an alien knowing that he or she is unauthorized to work in the United States. 8 U. S. C. §§1324a(a)(1), (h)(3). IRCA requires employers to comply with a federal employment verification system. §1324a(b). Using a federal work-authorization form (I–9), they “must attest” that they have “verified” that any new employee, regardless of citizenship or nationality, “is not an unauthorized alien” by examining approved documents, e.g., a United States passport or an alien registration card, §1324a(b)(1)(A). IRCA concomitantly requires all employees to complete an I–9 by their first day of employment and to attest that they are authorized to work. §1324a(b)(2). Every employee must also provide certain personal information, including name, address, birth date, Social Security number, e-mail address, and telephone number. It is a federal crime for an employee to provide false information on an I–9 or to use fraudulent documents to show work authorization. See 18 U. S. C. §§1028, 1546. But it is not a federal crime for an alien to work without authorization, and state laws criminalizing such conduct are preempted. Arizona v. United States, 567 U. S. 387, 403–407. The I–9 forms and appended documentation, as well as the employment verification system, may only be used for enforcement of the Immigration and Nationality Act or other specified federal prohibitions. See §§1324a(b)(5), (d)(2)(F). IRCA does not directly address the use of an employee’s federal and state tax-withholding forms, the W–4 and K–4 respectively. Finally, IRCA expressly “preempt[s] any State or local law imposing civil or criminal sanctions . . . upon those who employ, or recruit or refer for a fee for employment, unauthorized aliens.” §1324a(h)(2).

Kansas makes it a crime to commit “identity theft” or engage in fraud to obtain a benefit. Respondents, three unauthorized aliens, were tried for fraudulently using another person’s Social Security number on the W–4’s and K–4’s that they submitted upon obtaining employment. They had used the same Social Security numbers on their I–9 forms. Respondents were convicted, and the Kansas Court of Appeals affirmed. A divided Kansas Supreme Court reversed, concluding that §1324a(b)(5) expressly prohibits a State from using any information contained within an I–9 as the basis for a state law identity theft prosecution of an alien who uses another’s Social Security information in an I–9. The court deemed irrelevant the fact that this information was also included in the W–4 and K–4. One justice concurred based on implied preemption.


1. The Kansas statutes under which respondents were convicted are not expressly preempted. IRCA’s express preemption provision applies only to employers and those who recruit or refer prospective employees and is thus plainly inapplicable. The Kansas Supreme Court instead relied on §1324a(b)(5), which broadly restricts any use of an I–9, information “contained in” an I–9, and any documents appended to an I–9, reasoning that respondents’ W–4’s and K–4’s used the same false Social Security numbers contained in their I–9’s. The theory that no information placed on an I–9 could ever be used by any entity or person for any reason—other than the handful of federal statutes mentioned in §1324a(b)(5)—is contrary to standard English usage. A tangible object can be “contained in” only one place at any point in time, but information may be “contained in” many different places. The mere fact that an I–9 contains an item of information, such as a name or address, does not mean that information “contained in” the I–9 is used whenever that name or address is used elsewhere. Nothing in §1324a(b)(5)’s text supports the Kansas Supreme Court’s limiting interpretation to prosecuting aliens for using a false identity to establish “employment eligibility.” And respondents’ express preemption argument cannot be saved by §1324a(d)(2)(F), which prohibits use of the federal employment verification system “for law enforcement purposes other than” enforcement of IRCA and the same handful of federal statutes mentioned in §1324a(b)(5). This argument fails because it rests on a misunderstanding of the meaning of the federal “employment verification system.” The sole function of that system is to establish that an employee is not barred from working in this country. The completion of tax-withholding documents plays no part in the process of determining whether a person is authorized to work. Pp. 10–14.

2. Respondents’ argument that Kansas’s laws are preempted by implication is also rejected. Pp. 15–20.

(a) The laws do not fall into a field that is implicitly reserved exclusively for federal regulation, including respondents’ claimed field of “fraud on the federal verification system.” The submission of tax-withholding forms is neither part of, nor “related” to, the verification system. Employees may complete their W–4’s, K–4’s, and I–9’s at roughly the same time, but IRCA plainly does not foreclose all state regulation of information required as a precondition of employment. In arguing that the State’s statutes require proof that the accused engaged in the prohibited conduct for the purpose of getting a “benefit,” respondents conflate the benefit that results from complying with the federal employment verification system with the benefit of actually getting a job. Submitting W–4’s and K–4’s helped respondents get jobs, but it did not assist them in showing that they were authorized to work in this country. Federal law does not create a comprehensive and unified system regarding the information that a State may require employees to provide. Pp. 15–17.

(b) There is likewise no ground for holding that the Kansas statutes at issue conflict with federal law. It is certainly possible to comply with both IRCA and the Kansas statutes, and respondents do not suggest otherwise. They instead maintain that the Kansas statutes, as applied in their prosecutions, stand as “an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes” of IRCA—one of which is purportedly that the initiation of any legal action against an unauthorized alien for using a false identity in applying for employment should rest exclusively within the prosecutorial discretion of federal authorities. Respondents analogize their case to Arizona v. United States, 567 U. S., at 404–407, where the Court concluded that a state law making it a crime for an unauthorized alien to obtain employment conflicted with IRCA, which does not criminalize that conduct. But here, Congress made no decision that an unauthorized alien who uses a false identity on tax-withholding forms should not face criminal prosecution, and it has made using fraudulent information on a W–4 a federal crime. Moreover, in the present cases, there is certainly no suggestion that the Kansas prosecutions frustrated any federal interests. Federal authorities played a role in all three cases, and the Federal Government fully supports Kansas’s position in this Court. In the end, however, the possibility that federal enforcement priorities might be upset is not enough to provide a basis for preemption. The Supremacy Clause gives priority to “the Laws of the United States,” not the criminal law enforcement priorities or preferences of federal officers. Art. VI, cl. 2. Pp. 18–20.

306 Kan. 1113, 401 P. 3d 588 (first judgment); 306 Kan. 1100, 401 P. 3d 155 (second judgment); and 306 Kan. 1107, 401 P. 3d 159 (third judgment), reversed and remanded.

Alito, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Thomas, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Gorsuch, J., joined. Breyer, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined.

Notes 1 Together with Kansas v. Morales (see this Court’s Rule 12.4) and Kansas v. Ochoa-Lara (see this Court’s Rule 12.4), also on certiorari to the same court.