WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Thursday struck down a Pennsylvania city's ordinance that sought to punish landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and employers who hire them, ruling that immigration law is the province of the federal government alone.
The measure in Hazleton had become a symbol and an inspiration for a growing movement among state and city officials to enact local laws to combat illegal immigration. Supporters of this effort charge that Washington has failed to control the U.S. borders or deal with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants who live in the country.
Activists on both sides of the issue said that Thursday's decision -- the first after a trial in federal court -- dealt a major setback, but not a final defeat, to these local initiatives.
"Immigration is a national issue," U.S. District Judge James M. Munley said in knocking down the ordinance adopted last year in Hazleton, a city of about 30,000 that is 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
Led by the city's outspoken mayor, Louis J. Barletta, the City Council voted to fine landlords who rented to illegal immigrants and to revoke business permits of employers who hired them.
But Munley blocked the measures from taking effect and, in Thursday's 206-page decision, concluded that local officials lacked authority to go beyond federal law and impose penalties on businesses for hiring illegal immigrants.
"Allowing states or local governments to legislate with regard to the employment of unauthorized aliens would interfere with congressional objectives" to control immigration policy, Munley said.
The judge also noted that people in the country illegally had the legal right to challenge discriminatory ordinances in court.
"We cannot say clearly enough that persons who enter this country without legal authorization are not stripped immediately of all their rights because of this single illegal act," Munley wrote.
He noted that the Constitution says no person may be deprived of "due process of law." The Supreme Court has said this protection extends to those who have entered the country illegally, he added.
Civil liberties lawyers who sued to void the Hazleton ordinance called the ruling a sweeping victory and said it dealt a "body blow" to other local efforts to regulate illegal immigrants. Hazleton has inspired similar measures nationally.
"Today's decision sends an unmistakable message to local officials across the nation that these types of ordinances are a waste of taxpayers' money, anathema to American values and a violation of the Constitution," said Omar Jadwat of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project.
The ruling was also welcomed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "State and local governments have no business setting national immigrant policy," said the agency's National Chamber Litigation Center.
But advocates of stricter measures against illegal immigrants said they were confident the U.S. Supreme Court would uphold a Hazleton-style ordinance.
"What's at stake ... is the right of local communities to govern how business and commerce are conducted within their jurisdictions," said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "We are confident when the high court reviews the facts of this case, they will side with the right of local communities to take steps to protect themselves against the destructive impact of mass illegal immigration."
Congress has tried and failed to pass comprehensive immigration legislation for the last two years. States and localities have moved aggressively to fill the vacuum. The Federation for American Immigration Reform estimates that 1,200 local immigration measures are in progress or have passed. The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund estimates that more than 100 localities have passed anti-immigration ordinances.
Many of these measures also face legal challenges. Last year, the Escondido, Calif., City Council moved to fine landlords who rented to illegal immigrants but withdrew the ordinance after it was put on hold by a federal judge.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in the first four months of this year, state lawmakers had introduced at least 1,169 bills and resolutions related to immigration -- compared with 570 bills introduced last year.
Barletta introduced his proposal in June 2006 after two illegal immigrants from the Dominican Republic were charged with killing a 29-year-old Hazleton man. "Illegal immigrants are destroying the city," Barletta said then.
(The homicide charges were dropped three weeks ago because, prosecutors said, key witnesses were unreliable or unavailable. The men were to remain jailed until deportation.)
The former coal town had changed dramatically since Barletta became mayor in 2000, when the city had a population of 23,000, about 5% of whom were Latino. Cheap housing and proximity to farms and factories drew immigrants. By 2006, city officials estimated the town's population at 31,000, with 30% of residents Latino.