A federal appeals court on Thursday upheld a lower-court ruling striking down ordinances adopted by Hazleton, Pa., that banned illegal immigrants from renting housing or being employed there.
The 188-page ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, is the broadest statement by a court to date on the vexing question of how much authority states and towns have to act on immigration matters that are normally the purview of the federal government, constitutional lawyers said.
The Hazleton ordinances, which were passed in 2006 and 2007, have served as models for states and towns across the country seeking to crack down on illegal immigrants.
The tug-of-war over immigration between the federal government and some states and towns has generated political tensions in many places, and led the Obama administration to sue Arizona over a particularly tough law enacted there in April. A federal judge has stayed central provisions of the Arizona law while the case is heard.
The appeals court in Pennsylvania found that Hazleton had clearly overstepped its bounds.
“It is of course not our job to sit in judgment of whether state and local frustration about federal immigration policy is warranted,” the judges wrote. “We are, however, required to intervene when states and localities directly undermine the federal objectives embodied in statutes enacted by Congress.”
Hazleton “has attempted to usurp authority the Constitution has placed beyond the vicissitudes of local governments,” the panel of three judges concluded unanimously.
Lou Barletta, the mayor of Hazleton, who pressed for the ordinances to discourage illegal immigrants from living there, said the city would appeal to the Supreme Court. “This ruling is a loss for Hazleton and its legal residents,” Barletta said. “It is also a blow to the rights of the legal immigrants who choose to call Hazleton their home.”
Lawyers for the civil liberties groups that brought the suit said the ruling confirmed warnings from many Latino organizations that local immigration laws could lead to discrimination.
“This case was brought by Latinos who felt they were targets and the purpose was to drive them out of Hazleton,” said Cesar A. Perales, president of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, one of those groups. “The court recognizes that this could be an effect of the law. It is supporting what Latinos have been saying all over the country.”
The Hazleton ordinances would allow the city to suspend the business licenses of employers who knowingly hired illegal immigrants. Landlords who rented to immigrants without legal status could be accused of harboring, and their rental permits suspended.
Hazleton’s law, the appeals judges found, “creates the exact situation that Congress feared: a system under which employers might quite rationally choose to err on the side of discriminating against job applicants who they perceive to be foreign.”