Third Circuit Court of Appeals Rules Hazleton, Pennsylvania Anti-Immigrant Employment Law is Unconstitutional

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, PA upheld a lower-court ruling striking down ordinances adopted by the City of Hazleton, Pa., that banned illegal immigrants from renting housing or being employed there. The decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third 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 United States Supreme Court. “This ruling is a loss for Hazleton and its legal residents,” Mr. 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. “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. A federal district judge, James M. Munley, struck down the ordinances in July 2007. 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.” A law professor in Philadelphia, said: “The court is saying that immigration is something the federal government has given careful consideration, and the result is a very intricate federal regime. The local measures interfered with that regime, and that’s not O.K.” The constitutional lawyer who was an author of the Hazleton ordinances and a lead lawyer defending them on appeal, said the ruling “places the Third Circuit on the extreme end of these issues.” The court’s argument was “very flimsy,” he said, because there was no “unmistakable act of Congress” that bans local governments from adopting measures like Hazleton’s. The Supreme Court agreed earlier this year to hear a case challenging a law Arizona adopted in 2007 that requires employers to verify the legal immigration status of new hires and cancels business permits of those who repeatedly hire illegal immigrants. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had allowed that law to go forward, but the Third Circuit judges directly rejected many points in the Ninth Circuit opinion. Mr. Spiro said that as immigration cases made their way to the Supreme Court, the Third Circuit decision would bolster arguments by Latino and immigrant groups that local laws are unconstitutional. “Winning this battle makes it more likely they will win the war in the courts,” he said.

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