(CN) – The 3rd Circuit on Thursday struck down ordinances in Hazleton, Pa., aimed at blocking illegal immigrants from getting jobs or renting apartments. The court said the regulations “undermined” the federal government’s careful balance between curbing illegal immigration and preventing employers and landlords from discriminating against anyone who looks foreign.
Hazleton’s population jumped from 23,000 in 2000 to about 33,000 in 2007, due largely to an influx of Latino immigrants from New York and New Jersey.
The mayor and other local officials blamed illegal immigrants for many of the city’s social problems and reacted by passing a series of ordinances meant to stop undocumented workers from getting jobs or housing in Hazleton.
Employment provisions barred businesses from knowingly hiring illegal immigrants and required them to check a worker’s legal status before hiring. Companies that employed illegal immigrants faced losing their licenses. They could also be sued by former lawful employees who had been fired while the company employed illegal immigrants.
The ordinances also blocked landlords from renting to illegal immigrants and forced prospective tenants to obtain an “occupancy permit,” which required a $10 fee and proof of legal status. Landlords found guilty of renting to someone without a permit faced a $1,000 fine per unauthorized occupant. This fine also applied to legal tenants who allowed illegal immigrants to live with them.
A group of landlords, tenants and unnamed illegal immigrants challenged the ordinances in federal court, claiming the rules violated the state and federal constitutions, the Fair Housing Act, the plaintiffs’ privacy rights and various state laws.
U.S. District Judge James Munley issued an injunction barring enforcement of the ordinances, explaining that the state laws were pre-empted by federal immigration law.
The Philadelphia-based appeals court largely upheld the decision, but for different reasons.
The court said Munley failed to apply the “presumption against pre-emption” that allows states to pass immigration laws within their “historical police powers,” so long as the laws don’t tread on the government’s power to regulate immigration.
Although Hazleton’s ordinances closely mirrored federal immigration law, Chief Circuit Judge Theodore McKee said the city did not include the anti-discrimination provisions found in federal law.
When Congress enacted laws against hiring or harboring illegal immigrants, it also made sure that landlords and employers couldn’t refuse to hire or rent to anyone who looked foreign in order to “play it safe.”
Hazleton was apparently not as concerned about discrimination, the ruling states.
“It appears plain that the purpose of these housing provisions is to ensure that aliens lacking legal immigration status reside somewhere other than Hazleton,” McKee wrote. “It is this power to effectively prohibit residency based on immigration status that is so clearly within the exclusive domain of the federal government.”
But the appeals court reversed the lower court on one provision: the private cause of action against businesses that employ undocumented workers. McKee said none of the plaintiffs has standing to make this argument, because the provision applies to fired legal workers and their former employers.
Finally, the 3rd Circuit rejected Hazleton’s claim that the plaintiffs who are also illegal immigrants should have been required to reveal their identities.
McKee said Judge Munley properly considered the increased ethnic tensions in Hazleton when he allowed them to use John and Jane Doe pseudonyms.
The federal judge had found they faced an “exponentially greater” risk of being harassed, intimidated or even physically harmed if their identities were revealed.
The 3rd Circuit’s sweeping ruling is likely to affect legal challenges to the rapidly growing number of state immigration laws taking effect. In 2009, more than 1,500 immigration bills were introduced in state legislatures. Of those, 222 laws were passed, and 131 resolutions were adopted.