403 U.S. 365 (1971), argued 22 Mar. 1971, decided 14 June 1971 by vote of 9 to 0; Blackmun for the Court, Harlan specially concurring. This Supreme Court case established the doctrine that alienage, like race, is a suspect classification under the Fourteenth Amendment. Aliens are such, said the Court, because they are a discrete and politically powerless minority. As a result, governmental classifications based on alienage are subject to strict scrutiny; to pass muster constitutionally, they must be closely related to a compelling governmental interest.
In this case, Arizona regulations conditioning the receipt of welfare benefits either on U.S. citizenship or residence within the United States for a specified number of years failed to meet this test and thereby violated the Equal Protection Clause. The states in question justified their regulations on the basis of their special public interest in favoring their own residents over aliens in the dispersal of limited public resources.
In voiding the state residency requirements, the Supreme Court provided an alternative basis for its decision: the Constitution grants the federal government authority to admit aliens and the conditions under which they may reside in the United States. State laws disabling aliens, as in Graham. may interfere with overriding federal policies and thereby violate the Supremacy Clause.
Decisions subsequent to Graham—such as Foley v. Connelie (1978) and Ambach v. Norwick (1979)—have intimated that federal classifications based on alienage may demand lesser scrutiny while those of the states will be scrutinized under the Supremacy, rather than the Equal Protection, Clause. The Court has also held that a denial of essential services such as Medicare would be scrutinized more carefully than barriers to other programs. But it did uphold the ineligibility of non-permanently resident aliens for the Medicare Supplemental Medical Insurance Program in Mathews v. Diaz (1976).
Harold J. Spaeth