In a high-profile Pennsylvania case that helped spark the ongoing national debate over immigration policy, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday that the City of Hazleton has no right to punish businesses or landlords who hire or rent to illegal immigrants.
The ruling, by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia, upheld a 2007 lower-court decision prohibiting Hazleton from enforcing local immigration ordinances.
The judges said federal immigration law preempted Hazleton's controversial 2006 initiatives.
"Federal law simply does not prohibit landlords from renting [in the ordinary course of business] to persons who lack lawful immigration status," Chief Judge Theodore McKee wrote. "Nor does federal law directly prohibit persons lacking lawful status from renting apartments."
The ruling sets up a likely appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"We're over the moon," exulted Vic Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Pennsylvania, who successfully argued the case. "Hazleton pioneered a wave of these divisive laws across the country that tore communities apart along racial and ethnic lines."
The appellate ruling, Walczak said, "is a pointed repudiation of such local anti-immigrant laws, and should serve as a warning to other communities considering similar misguided legislation."
But Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta, who pushed through the ordinances, becoming a folk hero to many, vowed that the fight was not over. Saying he was "not disillusioned" by the ruling, Barletta pledged to take the case to the Supreme Court.
"Hazleton was the first, and became the symbol of hope for many around the country," the three-time Republican congressional candidate said at a news conference Thursday afternoon. "Since I proposed this law more than four years ago, we have seen the growing frustration all across the country."
Walczak said such laws actually "distracted local governments from solving the real problems that they were facing. That's certainly what we saw in Hazleton."
Calls to Barletta's lawyers were not returned.
Already before the Supreme Court is an Arizona law, similar to Hazleton's, that deals only with employment of immigrants. It is expected to be argued in December.
The Third Circuit ruling, Walczak said, "was the first appellate ruling to address the housing issue."
Hazleton's laws, the appellate court noted, helped give rise to hundreds of state and local laws and resolutions across the nation. A number of them remain tied up in court battles.
Hazleton's population grew from 23,000 to 30,000 early in the last decade, largely because of a surge of Latino residents from New York and New Jersey. Some were in the country legally, some not.
Barletta and other city officials blamed the influx for increases in crime and other problems in the Luzerne County municipality. Those claims have been disputed, and the court said it sided with neither argument.
"It is . . . not our job to sit in judgment of whether state and local frustration about federal immigration policy is warranted," McKee wrote. "We are, however, required to intervene when states and localities directly undermine the federal objectives embodied in statutes enacted by Congress."
In the court's view, that's what happened in 2006, when Hazleton began passing a series of ordinances aimed at undocumented immigrants.
The laws gave the city the right to fine employers and suspend their business licenses for hiring such immigrants. Similarly, landlords "harboring" illegal immigrants could have their rental licenses pulled and be prohibited from collecting rents.
Hazleton also required anyone 18 and older to obtain a permit, predicated in part on their immigration status, before being allowed to rent an apartment.
Because of ensuing legal challenges and court injunctions, the ordinances have never been enforced.
After a trial in 2007, U.S. District Judge James Munley of Scranton threw out Hazleton's ordinance. Some predicted that decision would halt local and state immigration measures elsewhere, but the debate has only intensified, most recently in Arizona.
"They are all basically the same idea, which is to make life hard for immigrants and to drive them out," said Jennifer Chang Newell, a staff lawyer for the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project. "As the Third Circuit made clear, that's unconstitutional."