Iowa Supreme Court 2016-17 Preview: Does federal immigration policy preempt Iowa’s criminal laws?

by Rox Laird | October 19, 2016

Martha Martinez was brought to the United States in 1997, when she was 11 years old and has lived in Muscatine as an undocumented immigrant ever since. So when President Barack Obama established the “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” by executive order in 2012, Martinez saw an opportunity to emerge from the shadows.

DACA meant she was eligible to legally obtain employment and a driver’s license, and to forge a new life without fear of immediate deportation. Before seeking DACA status, however, Martinez had earlier obtained both a driver’s license and employment using an assumed identity, and as a result she is being prosecuted in Muscatine County District Court on two felony counts.

Martinez, though, says that this case shouldn’t even get trial, and so she is asking the Iowa Supreme Court to intervene and throw out the charges against her.

The appeal, being argued tomorrow, could have broad implications for the highly charged immigration debate in Iowa, and at least one issue raised in Martinez’s appeal presents the Iowa Supreme Court with an issue it has not addressed before. In fact, two amicus curiae briefs were filed on Martinez’s behalf: one by DREAM Iowa and six other Iowa immigration support groups, and the other by the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.

Martinez’ legal argument turns on the principle that Congress has the power to preempt state laws under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. That includes state laws that are either in direct conflict with federal law, expressly preempted by federal law or precluded by federal laws that occupy a field that Congress has determined it must regulated exclusively.

Martinez argues that the Iowa laws used to convict her of forgery and identity theft are preempted by the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act, which was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in Arizona v. United States (2012) in striking down Arizona state criminal statutes aimed at curbing illegal immigration.

In the alternative, Martinez argues that Iowa criminal statutes applied to her are preempted by “federal immigration objectives and purposes” expressed in the DACA program.

In its response on behalf of the State, the Iowa Attorney General counters that the trial court got it right in rejecting the federal preemption argument. As the trial court concluded, Iowa’s forgery and identity theft laws apply equally, whether the accused are here legally or not. The State cites a U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the court said the fact that undocumented immigrants are the subject to prosecution under state law does not necessarily conflict with federal government’s authority to regulate immigration.

“Congress has preempted State legislation on the employment of illegal aliens,” the Attorney General concedes. “But, it has not preempted state crimes of forgery or identity theft.”

Nor does the Attorney General give much credence to the argument that the state laws enforced against here are preempted by DACA, noting that “it is questionable that the President has the constitutional authority to preempt a state law through the exercise of prosecutorial discretion,” since the Constitution “reserves the power of preemption to Congress.”

Both sides make compelling legal arguments, but for those who support Martinez the issue is as much about humanitarian treatment of immigrants as it is about the legal issues.

As the immigration support groups says in their amicus brief filed with the court:

“The effects of this prosecution conflict with the goals of DACA to lift eligible applicants from constant fear and allow them to serve as productive members of their communities. Amici are witness to the fear and distrust already existing in the immigrant populations of Iowa. This prosecution will result in fewer DACA applications and in fewer DACA recipients choosing to apply for a driver’s license — a benefit necessary for becoming a fully-integrated and productive member of the community — out of fear that such actions will result in prosecution or deportation.”

The Attorney General made a point of responding to the amicus briefs, and departed as well from legal issues to make a general point about immigration:

“Sympathy may explain the President’s act of discretion. But, the value of unauthorized aliens’ contributions to the state or the hard-heartedness of the law has little bearing on Congressional preemption. The local prosecutor must enforce the law. . . .  If that seems too harsh, then there is no better ‘method to secure the repeal of bad or obnoxious law so effective as their stringent execution’.” [From Ulysses S. Grant’s Inaugural Address, Mar. 4, 1869.] “The better place to address the policy concerns raised here is in Congress or the Iowa Legislature.”

* This post has been updated to corrects an earlier reference the status of Martinez’ Muscatine County criminal trial.


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