Measures targeting illegal immigrants face early legal setbacks

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Thirty-five towns have approved illegal immigrant laws, 35 have defeated them and 35 others have ordinances pending.

HAZLETON, Pa. -- When it comes to illegal immigration, Mayor Lou Barletta has led the way, and towns and cities around the nation have followed him -- some right into the courtroom.

Since last summer, when the Republican mayor began his high-profile campaign to rid this small northeastern Pennsylvania city of illegal immigrants, more than 100 other municipalities in 27 states have considered laws ranging from penalizing companies that employ illegal immigrants to making English the official language.

Opponents of the crackdowns have fought back, mounting a half-dozen legal challenges -- all successful -- in Hazleton and places like Valley Park, Mo., and Farmers Branch, Texas. None of those municipalities is enforcing its law.

In some of the cases, state and federal judges have blocked the laws. In the others, the towns themselves have backed down, unwilling or unable to mount expensive legal battles.

After a federal judge blocked Escondido, Calif., from fining landlords who rent to illegal immigrants, the city council killed the measure and agreed to pay $90,000 to the opposing lawyers.

State versus federal

In the Valley Park case, St. Louis County Circuit Judge Barbara Wallace issued a restraining order and said there were "big holes" in the city's ordinance, which would target businesses and landlords.

The American Civil Liberties Union argues the measures trample on the federal government's exclusive power to regulate immigration. In issuing a temporary restraining order against Hazleton on Oct. 31, U.S. District Judge James Munley said there was a "reasonable probability" its package of laws would be declared unconstitutional.

According to an analysis by the Center for Community Change, an immigrants rights group based in Washington, 35 towns have approved illegal immigrant laws, 35 have defeated them and 35 others have ordinances pending.

Ordinances that have not been challenged are being enforced, though it is too early to tell what effect they are having, said Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports tougher border security and an end to illegal immigration.

Despite the setbacks in communities where legal challenges have been raised, he said his group expects to see more towns pass such laws.

"It's a reaction to the inaction in Washington, and you'll continue to see these happen because the local jurisdictions are hit so hard by the cost of illegal immigration," said Dane, whose group petitioned Friday to intervene in the Farmers Branch case.

In Hazleton, where Hispanic immigrants swelled the population by more than 30 percent, Barletta is defending his Illegal Immigration Relief Act from a legal challenge filed by the ACLU and Hispanic activist groups.

The law, which the city council revised four times in an attempt to put it on sounder legal footing, would impose fines on landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and deny business permits to companies that give them jobs. A companion ordinance would require tenants to register with City Hall and pay for a rental permit.

The federal judge who blocked Hazleton's laws dealt the city another setback last month when he refused to order the ACLU to reveal the names of some of the plaintiffs, who had requested anonymity because they are illegal immigrants.

"All I want is a fair playing field. It makes it very difficult to prove your case when you don't know who is suing you," Barletta said.

Even though the laws have yet to be enforced in any of the places where they have been challenged, many Hispanics -- illegal or otherwise -- have already left. Hispanic business districts in Hazleton, Farmers Branch and Riverside, N.J., all report steep declines.

Kris Kobach, a University of Missouri law professor who is defending the ordinances in Hazleton and Valley Park, maintains that his clients have federal law and Supreme Court precedent on their side.

"Most of these temporary restraining orders don't represent a judicial consideration of the issues in any significant sense," said Kobach, an immigration adviser under former Attorney General John Ashcroft. "They are just agreements by the attorneys to preserve the status quo."

However, Munley is not the only judge who has expressed reservations. In California, U.S. District Judge John Houston wrote that he had serious questions about the constitutionality of Escondido's law.

The first real test of whether the local crackdowns will survive judicial scrutiny will come in March, when Hazleton and Valley Park are scheduled to defend their ordinances at trial.

Barletta believes the issue will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. He advises municipalities that want to tackle illegal immigration to closely follow Hazleton's approach.

But Omar Jadwat, an ACLU attorney fighting the ordinances, said he believes the legal maneuvering has made many towns think twice about going after illegal immigrants.

"They are holding off until there is more clarity from the courts," he said.

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