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Missouri town tests immigrant restrictions

A ruling on Valley Park's measure against renting to or employing illegal residents could set precedence.

March 01, 2007|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

Last summer, Mayor Jeffery J. Whitteaker was on his way to work in Valley Park, Mo., when he heard a radio broadcast about a town in Pennsylvania that had passed laws fining landlords who rented to illegal immigrants and denying business permits to companies that hired them.

A few days later, Whitteaker met with the city's council of representatives, and the council unanimously passed a similar ordinance. They also sparked a fierce legal fight that has thrust this town of about 6,400 into the national battle over immigration law.

Today, St. Louis County Circuit Judge Barbara Wallace will hear oral arguments on a challenge to the city measure. Wallace is expected to rule in the next few days on whether the ordinance violates state or federal constitutional protections, putting the Valley Park case in line to set legal precedence on the issue.

As the 2008 presidential contest picks up steam, and illegal immigration remains a key point of contention, Valley Park and other cities are struggling to find a balance between complying with federal law and protecting the rights of their immigrant communities.

Valley Park officials insist that, since the battle over illegal immigration has arrived on their doorstep, local government should help enforce federal laws.

"To endorse someone's presence when they're not here legally is tantamount to violating federal law," said Eric Martin, Valley Park's city attorney. "We're certainly not assisting the federal government or our own community by endorsing the employment of these people, or sanctioning landlords to harbor them."

Immigrant rights advocates say such laws are cruel, and landlords have complained that they are being dragged into the debate.

"Local officials should not be enforcing federal law," said attorney Linda M. Martinez, who represents two landlords and an area housing agency suing the city. The case claims the ordinance violates fair-housing laws and leads to racial profiling.

"Cities are not trained to be immigration agents," Martinez said. "It's not their job."

A trailblazer on this issue is Hazleton, Pa., the town featured in the news story Whitteaker heard.

Other cities have tried to establish local illegal immigration policies, with mixed success: In October, Escondido, Calif., passed an ordinance that fined landlords if they rented properties to undocumented workers -- but later reversed its approval when faced with a lawsuit.

The battle in Valley Park has roiled this suburban village about 20 miles southwest of St. Louis. It has a predominantly white population, according to U.S. Census statistics.

Days after the council approved the laws, the Police Department began receiving calls from residents about homes where undocumented workers were allegedly living. Officers investigated, knocking on doors and asking residents for paperwork proving that they were in the country legally.

In 2005, the town had about 150 residents of Hispanic or Latino descent. Today, that number has been cut by at least a third: Families and residents -- some here legally, others not -- fled the area after the measure was passed, according to attorneys fighting to overturn the laws.

Many turned to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis, which helped relocate 21 families to nearby communities and provided rent money to some.

Some residents, worried about being arrested, left the majority of their possessions behind, said Hector Molina, director of the archdiocese's Hispanic Ministry. "The church does not support illegal immigration, but this situation is inhumane," Molina said.

Soon after the lawsuit against Valley Park was filed in September, a judge issued a restraining order to halt the city's enforcement efforts. But in the subsequent months, the council has amended the ordinance at least twice, in part to address concerns raised in the suit.

But the legal battle in Valley Park is poised to continue: On Tuesday, the council passed a new law that forces landlords to provide identification and citizenship status for their tenants -- or face not being able to get an occupancy permit to rent out their property. Martin said the city's building inspector had been instructed to enforce the law immediately.

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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