The Case: U.S. Supreme Court decision on rights of resident noncitizens
Date: Decided on June 14, 1971
Significance: The Richardson decision was the first in a series of rulings that struck down discriminatory state laws denying public benefits to noncitizens.
Carmen Richardson, a legally admitted resident alien, had been living in Arizona since 1956. When she became totally disabled in 1964, she applied for welfare benefits that were administered by the state with federal subsidy. Her application was denied because of an Arizona statute requiring a person either to be a citizen or to have resided in the country for fifteen years. After the district court decided in Richardson’s favor, the state’s commissioner of public welfare, John Graham, appealed the case to the Supreme Court. Until that time, the Court had usually upheld laws that discriminated against noncitizens.
The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Arizona law was unconstitutional and that Richardson was entitled to benefits. Writing the opinion for the Court, Justice Harry A. Blackmun made four major points. First, from the perspective of equal protection, alienage, like race, is a suspect classification, because aliens are a discrete and politically weak minority. As a result, all governmental discrimination based on alienage must be justified by the standard of strict scrutiny, requiring a compelling governmental interest. Second, the Arizona law was contradictory to the federal Social Security Act of 1935, and that federal law overrides state law. Third, immigrants admitted into the country had the “right to enter and abide in any state,” with the same rights for public assistance as citizens. Finally, Congress possessed plenary power to establish regulations concerning the admission of immigrants into the country, and it had already put restrictions on the admissibility of paupers. The opinion left unanswered the extent to which Congress might have more discretion in distinguishing between the privileges of aliens and citizens.
Thomas Tandy Lewis
See also: Bernal v. Fainter; Citizenship; Congress, U.S.; Constitution, U.S.; Due process protections; Foley v. Connelie ; Immigration law; Plyler v. Doe; Supreme Court, U.S.