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Appeals court strikes down immigrant housing ordinance in Texas

July 23, 2013|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske | This post has been updated. Please see note below.

HOUSTON -- A panel of federal appeals court judges struck down a controversial Dallas suburb's ordinance banning renters who are not in the country legally.

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

"This inhumane and wasteful ordinance is unconstitutionally inconsistent with the federal immigration enforcement scheme," Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a statement. "Other cities that may be considering similar laws should take note."

On Monday, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals based in New Orleans issued its ruling, striking down the ordinance in Farmers Branch. Nine of the justices concurred with the majority opinion, five dissented and one of the justices concurred on some points and dissented on others.

The 2008 ordinance never took effect, though, having been blocked by the federal district court and a three-judge panel of the appeals court before reaching the full court.

"By a large margin, the judges of the 5th Circuit properly ruled that Farmers Branch's anti-immigrant housing ordinance is fundamentally unconstitutional," Omar Jadwat, one of the attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants' Rights Project who handled the case, said in a statement. "Their ruling will prevent municipal governments from investigating and discriminating against immigrants and people of color. This law now joins many others of its kind that have been discredited and abandoned to history's scrapheap through a series of court rulings."

Farmers Branch has spent millions on legal bills related to the case, and has mounted an online legal defense fund that has raised more than $654,000 for “immigration-related city initiatives.”

City attorneys have argued that the Supreme Court has not barred municipalities from limiting renters who are in the country illegally.

Farmers Branch attorney Michael Jung told the Los Angeles Times that they were “disappointed in the ruling” but that the court's split “indicates the complexity of the legal questions before the court,” particularly coupled with a recent decision by the 8th Circuit Court upholding a similar law in Fremont, Neb.

He said he plans to meet with the Farmers Branch City Council Aug. 6 to decide whether to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The city was careful to use the definitions of federal law and to rely on determinations about individual immigration status made by the federal government,” Jung said.

“We believe we steered clear of any of the prohibitions that the case law has set down for state and local regulation of immigration,” he added.

The suburb, population 28,000, was sued five years ago after officials passed the 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 The Times.

The ordinance, which replaced a 2006 version, 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. Those in the country illegally would be denied permits, and landlords who rented to them would be fined or could lose their renters' license.

Three years ago, a federal district judge ruled against the city, and that ruling was upheld last year by the three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit. Attorneys for the city then requested a hearing before the full court.

In their Monday ruling, the circuit court judges deemed the Farmers Branch ordinance was unconstitutional because it conflicts with federal immigration law. They relied on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last year invalidating provisions of Arizona's controversial law SB 1070 and emphasized that allowing officers to enforce the city’s policy "could be unnecessary harassment of some aliens."

[Updated, 12:23 p.m., PDT July 23: The lead attorneys in the case released a statement Tuesday praising the ruling.

“We are pleased with this outcome,” said William A. Brewer III, partner at Bickel & Brewer Storefront, the community service affiliate of the Dallas law firm of the same name, which represents the plaintiffs in the lawsuit: the Villas at Parkside, Lakeview at Parkside, Chateau de Ville, and Farmers Branch resident Mary Smith.

“Farmers Branch thrust itself into the national debate over immigration -- and this outcome was critically important for those who believe immigration reform must take place at the federal level,” Brewer said.]

"All of Texas benefits from the contributions of immigrants who live and work in our state," Rebecca L. Robertson, legal and policy director of the ACLU of Texas, said in a statement. "We fervently hope that this case marks the end of the anti-immigrant laws that target our friends, our neighbors, and our family members for harsh treatment."

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