A city in Texas has for years been attempting to ban undocumented immigrants from renting houses but constant legal battles have prevented the town from doing so. And attorneys representing the town tried to make their case in court again this week.
Farmers Branch, a city in Dallas County that holds an estimated population of 29,200, approved an ordinance in 2008 that would require renters to obtain a $5 city license and fill out an application that inquires about their immigration status.
Under the ordinance, building inspectors would also be required to check if applicants are authorized to be in the country and deny those who are not. Landlords that allow undocumented immigrants to rent their houses would also be fined or could lose their renters’ license.
The ordinance never went into effect because it was blocked by a lawsuit brought forward by a group of tenants and landlords. Representing the group were several attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).
In 2010, a federal district judge ruled the ordinance was unconstitutional and that it was preempted by federal immigration law. That ruling was upheld in March by a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
On Wednesday, supporters and opponents of the ordinance were back in court after the full panel from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to rehear the case. The panel, which is made up of 15 federal judges, is considered to be the nation’s most conservative.
Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for MALDEF, said Wednesday before the judges that under the ordinance, Farmers Branch “assumed the authority to identify and evict undocumented immigrants from rental housing.”
She said the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision on Arizona’s immigration law makes it clear that “states and cities cannot regulate in this area because it’s thoroughly occupied by the federal government.”
Moreover, Perales said the ordinance “goes far beyond what was invalidated in Arizona and in fact sets up regulation of immigration that is intended in a very direct way to expel them from the jurisdiction.”
But Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the attorney representing Farmers Branch, told the court Wednesday that the plaintiffs “cannot identify a single federal statute that the Farmers Branch ordinance conflicts with.”
He went on to say that federal law not only allows such ordinances, it also “expressingly invites it.” He pointed to six federal statutes that he said support the ordinance. One of those statutes states that local governments should act to discourage illegal immigration and another one forbids the harboring of unauthorized immigrants, which includes renting them apartments.
Kobach also said building inspectors are prohibited from making an independent determination of anyone’s status. Ultimately, it would be immigration officials who determine the immigration status of a person, he said.
“It must always be done by the federal government,” Kobach told the court about determining whether a person is authorized to be in the country.
But Perales said the information federal officials provide the building inspectors to know if someone is authorized to be in the country is often “very complex and varied.”
“That’s something that the building inspector is going to have to figure out for himself,” Perales said about determining a person’s immigration status.
Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director for the ACLU of Texas, told VOXXI similar ordinances “have been cropping up in different places.”
In 2006, for example, the city of Escondido in California passed an ordinance banning undocumented immigrants from renting apartments. Months after the ordinance passed and after it received wide opposition from civil rights organizations, the city agreed not to enforce it.
Most recently, the city of Hazleton in Philadelphia also passed an ordinance prohibiting undocumented immigrants from renting houses but it was blocked by a lawsuit. The federal appeals court in Philadelphia heard arguments on the case in August but has not issued a ruling.
It is unknown when the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will announce its decision on the Farmers Branch ordinance.