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Texas town's ban on renting to illegal immigrants goes to court

September 19, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske | This post has been corrected, as indicated below.
  • In this file photo from November 2006, former Marine Sgt. Salvadaor Parada, right, speaks to protesters during a rally outside City Hall in Farmers Branch, Texas. A federal appeals court will review Farmers Branch's ordinance, which allows the city building inspector to evict any illegal immigrant renters.
In this file photo from November 2006, former Marine Sgt. Salvadaor Parada,… (Rex C. Curry / Associated…)

HOUSTON -- A panel of federal appeals court judges is expected to hear arguments Wednesday concerning a Dallas suburb's ordinance banning illegal immigrant renters.

The suburb of Farmers Branch, population 28,000, was sued four years ago after officials passed an ordinance allowing the city building inspector to screen renters based on their immigration status, according to city spokesman Tom Bryson. Voters had already approved a similar ordinance by referendum the year before, 68% in favor in an election with 45% turnout, Bryson told the Los Angeles Times.

Because of legal challenges, the city has never been allowed to enforce the ordinance, which replaced an earlier 2006 version. The newer ordinance would require renters to buy a $5 city license, fill out an application disclosing their immigration status and allow the city's building inspector to check it. Illegal immigrants would be denied permits, and landlords who rented to them would be fined or could lose their renters' license.

Two years ago, a federal district judge ruled against the city, a ruling that was upheld in March by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals based in New Orleans. Attorneys for the city requested a hearing before the full circuit court after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Arizona's new immigration law, SB 1070, in June.

On Wednesday, the case is scheduled to be considered by the full circuit court in New Orleans, a panel that includes 10 judges appointed by Republican presidents, five appointed by Democrats. The panel is considered one of the nation's most conservative, and its decision to hear the Farmers Branch case is rare — fewer than 5% of petitions for a full court hearing are granted.

The court directed both sides before arguments Wednesday to consider the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on SB 1070, portions of which take effect this week. That ruling upheld Arizona's "show me your papers" requirement, which gives law enforcement officials the authority to check a person's immigration status if they suspect the individual is an illegal immigrant.

Farmers Branch has spent nearly $5.8 million on legal bills related to the case, and has mounted an online legal defense fund that has raised more than $250,000 for immigration-related lawsuits, Bryson said. City attorneys have argued that the ordinance is substantially different from Arizona's law and that the Supreme Court has not barred municipalities from limiting illegal immigrant renters. Farmers Branch attorney Michael Jung did not return calls Wednesday.

Attorneys for landlords and renters who sued the town argue that the ordinance overreaches, addressing federal matters, a position supported by immigrant advocates.

“The position of the ACLU of Texas and other advocates is that that is interfering with the enforcement of immigration laws, which is the exclusive province of the federal government,” said Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director for the ACLU of Texas based in Houston. That organization submitted a brief in support of the plaintiffs in the Farmers Branch case.

“It’s not up to states and municipalities to come up with some patchwork system for dealing with immigration,” Robertson said.

Lawyers challenging the ordinance will note that the U.S. Supreme Court “struck down almost every provision of SB 1070,” she said. "That case just reinforces the argument we had already made that Farmers Branch is not free to come up with its own enforcement scheme” for immigration.

Robertson told The Times that the Farmers Branch case is one of many local legal battles about immigration in which SB 1070 is playing a role.

“Courts across the country are beginning to wrestle with what is this new Supreme Court precedent and how do we reconcile that with these various decisions,” she said.

She cited an August 20 ruling by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals based in Atlanta that found Alabama’s prohibition on renting to illegal immigrants was preempted by federal law.

"We argued that the 5th Circuit should reach precisely the same conclusion about Farmers Branch’s ordinance," she said. 

[For the record: Sept. 19, 1:06 p.m.: A previous version of this post incorrectly said the ordinance would allow the city building inspector to evict renters based on their immigration status. The ordinance would allow the city building inspector to screen, not evict, renters based on their immigration status.]

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Join Molly on Google+ and Twitter @mollyhf. Email: molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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