Strictest Immigration Laws Put to the Test

By: - August 25, 2006 12:00 am

Sweeping new immigration laws in Colorado and Georgia may be the toughest state actions yet, but more than a dozen local governments are taking an even harder line that in some towns is leading landlords to start evicting illegal immigrants.

Since the Pennsylvania city of Hazleton became the first to go after not only employers but also landlords of illegal immigrants on July 13, dozens of other local governments are debating similar ordinances seeking to deter illegal immigrants from settling in their communities.

Courts are now considering legal challenges against Hazleton and the town of Riverside, N.J., which copied the Pennsylvania town’s ordinance to fine landlords ,000 per day for renting to illegal immigrants and to strip business licenses from employers who hire undocumented workers. Opponents say the measures violate federal law by creating new immigration controls, which only Congress has the authority to do.

Four other communities already have passed measures based on Hazleton’s, including Valley Park, Mo., where landlords started evicting dozens of tenants who are not legal residents earlier this month. At least 17 more cities are considering similar measures, according to the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund , which filed the lawsuit against Hazleton’s ordinance Aug. 15.

The outcome of the legal challenges will help determine how far state and local governments can go in their attempt to deter illegal immigration, advocates on both sides of the issue said.

“Going after (undocumented immigrants’) housing has the potential to be more far-reaching than anything we’ve seen if the courts decide these measures aren’t pre-empted by federal law,” said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute at New York University School of Law.

Frustrated by what’s seen as a failure by the federal government to enforce the nation’s immigration laws, state and local governments have started experimenting with new — and potentially unconstitutional — ways to deter illegal immigrants by making it harder for them to get jobs, driver’s licenses or housing.

States and local lawmakers have limited authority when it comes to immigration, which is solely a federal responsibility. A major federal immigration law passed in 1986 pre-empted most existing state immigration policies and forbids states from enacting tougher criminal or civil penalties for illegal immigration than those set by Congress.

This year, state legislatures considered a record 550 pieces of immigration-related legislation and passed at least 77 new laws in 27 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Georgia passed a sweeping immigration reform package in May that set the strictest sanctions on employers and access to public services by any state. Colorado lawmakers passed nearly identical requirements during a politically heated special legislative session in July called by Republican Gov. Bill Owens.

The employer sanctions in both states will be phased in starting in 2007. The laws require employers to verify the immigration status of workers and penalize those caught hiring illegal aliens. Additional restrictions require that all adults applying for government benefits, licenses or other services with the state show documentation proving they are in the country legally.

Colorado began enforcing the restrictions Aug. 1 and Georgia’s will go into effect Jan. 1, 2007.

“Only the federal government can remove illegal aliens from the country, but state and local jurisdictions can and are taking action to deter new settlement, to encourage illegal aliens to leave and pressure federal authorities to enforce existing laws,” said Mike Hethmon, an attorney for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization that supporters stricter immigration enforcement.

State lawmakers have been trying to avoid measures that fall afoul of federal law, such as California’s Proposition 187, which would have denied even public schooling, emergency hospital care and other social services to illegal aliens. The measure was approved by state voters in 1994, but courts later threw it out as unconstitutional.

Arizona reignited the debate over illegal immigration in 2004 when voters approved a similar, but less strict, ballot measure barring social services for illegal aliens. This year, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) outraged lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Legislature by vetoing several immigration bills that she considered unconstitutional, including a measure to let local law enforcers arrest illegal aliens for “trespassing.”

Local governments, however, are pushing the envelope, civil rights advocates say.

Opponents of the Hazleton, Pa., measure, passed by the City Council July 13, filed a lawsuit in federal court last week arguing that the city is violating the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution by attempting to regulate immigration, which is a federal matter.

Hazleton Mayor Louis J. Barletta, who attracted national attention by championing the new ordinances, said he has received more than 8,000 e-mails from around the country voicing support for his stance. He said the city is prepared to take the fight to the U.S. Supreme Court and has set up a legal defense fund to defray legal costs.

Called the Illegal Immigration Relief Act, the measure imposes a fine of ,000 a day on any landlord renting property to an illegal immigrant, suspends the license of any business that employs illegal immigrants and makes English the official language for city business. When the measure goes into effect Sept. 11, people wishing to rent apartments in Hazleton first will have to obtain a city residency license, which will be granted only to those with proof of citizenship or legal U.S. residency.

“This mean-spirited law is wrong for many reasons, but the most obvious is that the city does not have the power to make its own immigration laws,” said Omar Jadwat, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which jointly filed the lawsuit with the Puerto Rican legal defense group.

The city council in Escondido, Calif., a suburb of San Diego with a population of 134,000, voted 3-2 in favor of drafting a similar ordinance the day after Hazleton’s law was challenged in court. The city council would have to vote again to adopt a measure.

More than 200 residents filled the Escondido city hall to capacity and dozens waited outside during two hours of heated debate Aug. 16. Council Member Ron Newman, who voted against the measure, said residents were split on racial lines, with white residents in favor of the ordinance sitting on one side of the room and mostly Latinos who were against it sitting on the other side.

A supporter, Mayor Pro Tem Ed Gallo, said local government officials must address immigration because they are responsible for the health and safety of their communities.

“People are finally waking up to the fact that we’re being invaded. And I hope these measures spread around the country because communities have to do whatever they can to protect themselves,” Gallo said.

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Christine Vestal

Christine Vestal covers mental health and drug addiction for Stateline. Previously, she covered health care for McGraw-Hill and the Financial Times.