In Hoffman, the Court explained that the IRCA, a comprehensive scheme prohibiting the employment of illegal aliens in the United States, had significantly changed the legal landscape. The Court held that an award of back pay to an alien for a period during which his employment in the United States was prohibited by the IRCA was impermissible. The Court reasoned that: Under the IRCA regime, it is impossible for an undocumented alien to obtain employment in the United States without some party directly contravening explicit congressional policies. Either the undocumented alien tenders fraudulent identification, which subverts the cornerstone of IRCA’s enforcement mechanism, or the employer’s personal injury knowingly hires the undocumented alien in direct contradiction of its IRCA obligations. The NLRB asks that we overlook this fact and allow it to award back pay to an illegal alien for years of work not performed, for wages that could not lawfully have been earned, and for a job obtained in the first instance by a criminal fraud. We find, however, that awarding back pay to illegal aliens runs counter to policies underlying IRCA, policies the NLRB has no authority to enforce or administer. Therefore, as we have consistently held in like circumstances, the award lies beyond the bounds of the NLRB’s remedial discretion. Allowing the NLRB to award back pay to illegal aliens would unduly trench upon explicit statutory prohibitions critical to federal immigration policy, as expressed in IRCA. It would encourage the successful evasion of apprehension by immigration authorities, condone prior violations of the immigration laws, and encourage future violations.
In a recent pair of decisions, the Appellate Division, First Department, held that, in light of Hoffman, an undocumented alien may not be awarded lost earnings in a personal injury action based on wages he would have earned in the United States. The Court reasoned that an award of damages herein based on the United States wages plaintiff might have earned unlawfully, but for his injury, would unduly trench upon IRCA’s federal immigration policy in substantially the same manner as did the NLRB back pay award in Hoffman. Accordingly, the Court concluded that its holding in Public Adm’r of Bronx County v Equitable Life Assur. Socy. was no longer tenable after Hoffman. In Balbuena, Justice Ellerin dissented, expressing the view that awarding damages in state tort cases for wages that undocumented aliens could have earned in the United States would not have any significant impact upon the IRCA’s objectives of prohibiting their employment, and therefore such awards are not preempted by the IRCA.
The defendants in this case contend that the plaintiff, as an undocumented alien, is not entitled to recover lost wages because such a remedy is preempted by federal immigration policy, as expressed in the IRCA and the Hoffman decision. When Congress enacts a statute touching the rights, privileges, obligations or burdens of aliens as such the statute is the supreme law of the land. Under the Supremacy Clause (US Const, art VI, § 2), Congress is empowered to preempt state law. In the absence of explicit statutory language signaling an intent to pre-empt a court may infer such intent where Congress has legislated comprehensively to occupy an entire field of regulation or where the state law at issue conflicts with federal law. Such a conflict arises where it is physically impossible to comply with both the federal and state laws or where, under the circumstances of this particular case, stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress. There exists, however, a strong presumption against federal preemption of state and local legislation, particularly when that legislation regulates matters related to health and safety. A claim traditionally within the domain of State law will not be superseded by Federal law `unless that was the clear and manifest purpose of Congress.
Clearly, Congress has neither expressly preempted awards of lost wages to undocumented aliens in state-court personal injury actions nor entirely occupied the fields of workplace safety and common-law torts. Thus, the principal question presented in this case is whether an award of lost wages to an undocumented alien presents an obstacle to the Congressional objectives underlying the IRCA.