State attempts to deny welfare benefits to legally resident aliens violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the exclusive powers of the federal government in immigration matters. When Arizona and Pennsylvania sought to require either U.S. citizenship or residence in the country for a certain number of years, the state legislatures both violated equal protection of the laws and the exclusive power of Congress. The Supreme Court held further that, for purposes of this case, legal aliens are a suspect class to whom discrimination is subject to heightened judicial scrutiny. Read the opinion here.
States participate in the Social Security Act by administering its social welfare grants at the local level. Arizona passed a law restricting these benefits to U.S. citizens or residents of the country for at least 15 years. Pennsylvania granted social welfare benefits to U.S. citizens but denied them to aliens regardless of duration of residency.
The states argued that the regulations were legal state police powers and did not violate King v. Smith, 392 U.S. 309 (1968), which held that “invidious discrimination” on the basis of race or nationality violated equal protection.
The Supreme Court acknowledged that states have wide discretionary powers as long as they have a rational basis. But the Court, citing United States v. Carolene Products Co., fn. 4, held that aliens are a “discrete and insular minority” entitled to heightened review. The Court declared that the states did not have enough of a special interest in denying welfare benefits to non-citizens to justify this discrimination. While discrimination against aliens can be lawful, the discrimination will rise to “invidious” when the state lacks enough of a good reason to inflict the level of resulting harm.
But the Court added another reason the laws must be struck down: federal power requires that Congress take the lead in immigration matters, and the state laws harming aliens can conflict with having a uniform national policy. Therefore, the state laws, even if not subject to strict scrutiny, were preempted and void.
The Court was unanimous in judgment, but Justice John Marshall Harlan II concurred only in Parts III and IV, the sections of the opinion relating to preemption and the Social Security Act’s displacing of state law. Only eight justices then accepted the heightened scrutiny for alienage first described in this opinion.
In subsequent cases, the Supreme Court has declined to subject classifications based on alien status to strict scrutiny review, but this case is seminal because of the potential precedent for doing so.Authored by: Nathan K. Koskella, Cornell Law School