A federal judge’s ruling that a Pennsylvania
city may not enforce its tough anti-illegal immigration law could decide the
fate of copycat measures adopted in other communities around the U.S.
U.S. District Judge James Munley found fault with just about
every aspect of Hazleton’s Illegal
Immigration Relief Act, which he struck down Thursday in a 206-page opinion
that declared states and municipalities have no business trying to stem illegal
Munley’s decision applies only to Hazleton,
but legal experts say it could lead to similar rulings elsewhere.
The decision is a road map for judges “inclined to find
in favor of immigrant advocates,” said Peter Spiro, who teaches
immigration law at Temple University.
“This is a big victory for immigrants rights advocates
… in the first major case addressing one of these ordinances,” he said.
“They could hardly have asked for more.”
Hazleton sought to impose fines on landlords who rent to
illegal immigrants and deny business permits to companies that give them jobs.
Another measure would have required tenants to register with City Hall and pay
for a rental permit.
Inspired by the Hazleton crackdown, dozens of local
governments around the U.S.have passed similar measures that seek to curtail
illegal immigration. But Munley said such laws usurp the federal government’s
exclusive power to regulate immigration and deprive residents of their
constitutional right to due process.
“Even if federal law did not conflict with Hazleton’s
measures, the city could not enact an ordinance that violates rights the
Constitution guarantees to every person in the United States, whether legal
resident or not,” Munley wrote.
Munley also wrote that Hazleton’s law was at odds with current
federal immigration policy, which he said avoids “excessive
enforcement” against illegal immigrants so as not to jeopardize foreign
relations. Hazleton, he said, failed to consider “the implications of the
ordinances on foreign policy.”
Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta pushed for the strict laws last
summer after two illegal immigrants were charged in a fatal shooting. The
Republican mayor argued that illegal immigrants brought drugs, crime and gangs
to the city of more than 30,000, overwhelming police and schools.
Hispanic groups and illegal immigrants in Hazleton sued,
denouncing the measures as racist and divisive.
Hazleton’s act was copied by dozens of municipalities around
the country that believe the federal government has not done enough to stop illegal
Because the Hazleton ordinance was the first to go to trial,
Munley’s opinion will almost certainly be studied by judges determining the
validity of similar measures, experts said. A federal judge in Texas, for
instance, is considering a legal challenge to a law in the Dallas suburb of
Farmers Branch that prohibits apartment rentals to illegal immigrants.
“Any judge is going to have to look at what Judge
Munley has written and take it into consideration in deciding how they want to
rule,” said Jan Ting, a former federal immigration official and Temple
University law professor. “A judge would be negligent” not to, he
Hazleton plans to appeal Munley’s decision to the
Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals within 30 days. The city’s
lawyer, Kris Kobach, has said Munley ignored Supreme Court precedent and
existing federal law.
In defending the ordinance, Kobach relied heavily on a 1976
Supreme Court decision in which the high court upheld a California law
prohibiting businesses from employing illegal immigrants.
But Munley said the Supreme Court’s ruling in that case was
no longer applicable, because a decade later Congress enacted sweeping
legislation that made it unlawful for businesses to employ illegal immigrants
and expressly pre-empted states and localities from imposing their own civil or
Angelo Paparelli, president of the Academy of Business
Immigration Lawyers and an opponent of the Hazleton law, predicted that courts
will use Munley’s decision as a template. “He rebutted and threw down as
wrongheaded every legal argument the city made,” he said.
But Ting, who is critical of Munley’s ruling, said its value
to other judges would be diminished if an appeals court reverses it. “I
don’t think anyone can foresee with certainty what the ultimate outcome will
be,” Ting said. “I think we have miles to go before we sleep on this
Even Spiro, who opposes the Hazleton law, said Munley’s
decision is vulnerable because it is an unsettled area of the law. “The
court ruled that localities such as Hazleton simply can’t regulate immigration
policy. It’s not as clear as the district court made it out to be,” he
– Associated Press
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