Court ruling reaffirms regulation of immigration as federal domain

A city may not punish employers who hire illegal immigrants or landlords who rent to them, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled Thursday, asserting that immigration is “clearly within the exclusive domain of the federal government.”

The decision strikes down an anti-immigrant ordinance adopted four years ago in Hazleton, Pa., that inspired a wave of similar measures elsewhere, including in Arizona.

The court’s unanimous decision is the latest to send the message that Washington sets the rules on immigration, not states or localities.

“Deciding which aliens may live in the United States has always been the prerogative of the federal government,” said Chief Judge Theodore McKee of the appellate court. “If Hazleton can regulate as it has here, then so could every other state or locality.”

The court cited 11 states and several municipalities, including two in California — Mission Viejo and Escondido — that have passed similar laws to punish illegal immigrants or those who do business with them. Most of those measures have been prevented from taking effect.

In July, a federal judge in Phoenix blocked much of the new Arizona law that requires police to check the immigration status of people they legally stop and suspect are in the country illegally.

Omar Jadwat, an immigrants rights lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, called Thursday’s decision “a major defeat for the misguided, divisive and expensive anti-immigrant strategy that Hazleton has tried to export to the rest of the country. The Constitution does not allow states and cities to interfere with federal immigration laws.”

But one of the lawyers for the Washington Legal Foundation, which helped defend the ordinance, expressed optimism that the city would eventually win. States and localities “have traditionally regulated housing and employment, and that’s what they wanted to do here,” chief counsel Richard Samp said.

Hazleton is a former coal mining center in northeastern Pennsylvania with about 30,000 residents. Mayor Lou Barletta and the City Council gained national attention in 2006 with their crackdown on illegal immigrants. A newly enacted ordinance would have imposed a $1,000 fine on landlords for each rental to an illegal immigrant.

A federal judge blocked the ordinance from taking effect. The city appealed, but lost in Thursday’s 3-0 decision.

The ruling is not the final word on this issue, however. In December, the Supreme Court is set to hear an Arizona case to decide whether a state may take away the business licenses of companies that knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

This law, passed when Democrat Janet Napolitano was Arizona’s governor, was upheld by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on the grounds that states traditionally control the licensing of businesses. The Supreme Court’s conservative justices may be inclined to give state and local officials more leeway to enforce their own laws on crime, employment or housing.

Hazleton’s lawyers said they would appeal Thursday’s decision, but the Supreme Court is unlikely to act on the matter until it resolves the Arizona case early next year.