Iowa Laws Can’t Be Used Against Immigrants Seeking Jobs

By Laura D. Francis

A deferred action for childhood arrivals recipient won’t face prosecution under two Iowa laws for her use of fake documents to obtain employment before she received DACA protection.

Martha Martinez was charged with identity theft and forgery after she applied for a state driver’s license under her real name following her DACA grant. The DACA program provides deportation protection and work permits to young, unauthorized immigrants who came to the country as children.

But federal law overrides those state laws when they’re applied to unauthorized immigrants trying to get a job, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled June 9 ( State v. Martinez , 2017 BL 195523, Iowa, No. 15-0671, 6/9/17 ).

Federal immigration law related to employment mostly targets employers, not employees, the court said. And allowing prosecutions for employment-related ID theft and forgery under state law would undermine the federal government’s ability to use discretion, the state justices said.

‘Continuing Saga’

The case is part of a “continuing saga” of “state and federal governments trying to figure out who’s in charge of immigration,” Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the University of California, Davis School of Law, told Bloomberg BNA June 9. The Montana Supreme Court ruled last year that federal law overrides a state law preventing “illegal aliens” from access to state services, he said.

The federal government has “so legalized” the area of immigration and employment that state courts are “reluctant to intervene,” Johnson said.

Justice Brent R. Appel wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Mark S. Cady, David S. Wiggins, and Daryl L. Hecht. Cady, joined by Wiggins, wrote a special concurring opinion. Wiggins also wrote a special concurring opinion.

Justice Edward M. Mansfield dissented, writing that the majority’s ruling exempts unauthorized immigrants from these laws but U.S. citizens are still subject to full prosecution. The majority also goes against the decisions of several other courts, he said.

The dissent was joined by Justices Thomas D. Waterman and Bruce B. Zager.

U.S. Supreme Court Action?

The U.S. Supreme Court could soon be weighing in on the issue specifically as it relates to DACA. The court is considering whether to take a case involving Arizona’s policy of denying driver’s licenses to DACA recipients. The question is whether federal law overrides state law in the area of immigration where federal policy is based on an executive action rather than a law passed by Congress.

Arizona sought Supreme Court review in March.

Martinez’s DACA status was “critical” to the Iowa case, Johnson said. Much of the court’s decision rested on the federal government’s prosecutorial discretion, and giving Martinez DACA protection was its exercise of that discretion, he said.

And “there’s a federal statute they could proceed under” if the federal government had wanted to prosecute Martinez for using fraudulent documents to obtain employment, he said.

The Iowa court’s narrow holding and “careful, cautious” reasoning make it unlikely that this particular case will reach the nation’s highest court, Johnson said.

Applies in Absence of DACA

At the same time, the decision also should apply to undocumented immigrants without DACA, Johnson said. That means if President Donald Trump decides to terminate the program, as he promised during the campaign, it will still be up to the federal government and not the states to prosecute unauthorized immigrants for employment-related offenses.

DACA continues to operate despite Trump’s promise to end the program on the first day of his presidency. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approved a combined 124,799 initial and renewal applications in January, February, and March of this year alone. Since the program’s launch in 2012, the agency has approved 787,580 initial and 799,077 renewal applications.

“Today’s decision is a tremendous victory for immigrants in Iowa more broadly, and for our client Ms. Martinez, specifically,” Philip Mears, Martinez’s attorney, said in a statement provided to Bloomberg BNA June 9. “The Iowa Supreme Court has recognized the important protection provided to Dreamers given their connection and tremendous contributions to the country they grew up in and call home,” said Mears, who practices in Iowa City, Iowa.

The Iowa Attorney General’s Office is reviewing the opinion and its legal options, spokesman Geoff Greenwood told Bloomberg BNA June 9.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laura D. Francis in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at; Terence Hyland at; Chris Opfer at

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