SAN ANTONIO (CN) - Landlords and a legal aid group sued Texas in Federal Court, challenging a 5-month-old state law that makes it a felony to harbor undocumented immigrants.
Texas House Bill 11 made it a third-degree felony, punishable by 2 to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, to "harbor" an immigrant. If the "harbored" immigrant is younger than 18, it is a second-degree felony, punishable by 2 to 20 years in prison and the same fine. If the harbored person "suffers serious bodily injury or death," it is punishable by 5 years to life.
The two plaintiff homeowners, in San Antonio and Farmers Branch, say the law is unreasonable and unconstitutional. They say they rely on income from their rental properties to pay their mortgages and support themselves.
They say they do not ask their tenants to prove their immigration status, nor do they believe that a tenant's immigration status is relevant to the safety and security of their property, and inquiring about it would be an invasion of privacy.
The third plaintiff, Jonathan Ryan, is executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES. RAICES provides free and low-cost services to refugees and short-term shelters for refugees who bond out of immigration prisons.
All say they fear criminal prosecution under HB 11, which they want enjoined as unconstitutional. They say the felony "harboring" is overreaching, overbroad, targets innocent landlords, and is preempted by federal law, in violation of the Supremacy Clause.
"The harboring provisions of HB 11 impose substantial criminal penalties on property owners and lessors who lease to undocumented individuals or without regard to immigration status, as well as employees and volunteers of humanitarian organizations who house and provide essential services to undocumented immigrants," the Jan. 24 lawsuit states. "Unless enjoined by this court, the harboring provisions of HB 11 will impermissibly burden the constitutional rights of plaintiffs."
The only new criminal offense created by the law was harboring an immigrant. It makes it a felony if a person "encourages or induces a person to enter or remain in this country in violation of federal law by concealing, harboring, or shielding that person from detection."
Plaintiffs' attorney Nina Perales said that state laws on harboring immigrants have been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, and by federal courts in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.
"Texas already has enough laws to protect us from human smuggling without targeting religious and nonprofit organizations that care for immigrants," Perales said in a statement. She is vice president of the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund, which filed the lawsuit.
MALDEF called HB 11 a result of "dubious legal advice" that Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law despite warnings that its harboring provisions would not withstand a constitutional challenge.
The plaintiffs want the harboring provision declared unconstitutional and enjoined.