US - petition and lawsuit challenge anti-immigrant ordinance in Texas

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The city of Farmers Branch, Texas is one of dozens of municipalities around the United States that, frustrated with federal deadlock on immigration reform, adopted tough measures on illegal immigration last year.

The Farmers Branch City Council ordinance, which was set to go into effect 12 January 2007, requires landlords to verify the immigration or citizenship status of apartment-renters. The Council also passed resolutions making English the city's official language.

Similar laws in Escondido, California and Hazleton, Pennsylvania were enacted last year and are being watched closely by more than 50 other U.S. cities to observe the legal fallout as they are challenged in court. These controversial ordinances effectively turn property owners into immigration agents, and it is maintained by various civil rights groups that this violates federal law.

However, the Farmers Branch ordinance is seen as a turning point for Texas, a state that largely has avoided the kind of confrontational immigration policies becoming commonplace elsewhere.


Unconstitutional

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) maintain that a city can't require apartment managers to check on the legality of prospective tenants. The common legal argument regarding many of these ordinances right now is that only the federal government has the authority, as stipulated in the United States Constitution, to govern residency and citizenship issues.

Farmers Branch is a city of 28,000 north of Dallas, Texas, with approximately a 37% Latino ethnic demographic.

"This is the first ordinance of its kind in Texas, the beginning of what we hope will not be a lasting trend here," said Lisa Graybill, legal director of the ACLU of Texas. "Stop and think what it would be like if every little town tried to adopt its own illegal immigration policy. It would be a nightmare."

The ACLU and MALDEF are challenging the law on several constitutional grounds. They argue that it violates the due process clause because it does not make clear which immigration documents are acceptable and which are not.

The contract clause of the Constitution is violated because the ordinance interferes with a business transaction between landlord and tenant without proper cause, and the equal protection clause is violated because it only applies to some landlords.

The complaint also alleges that the ordinance is so poorly drafted that it excludes some authorized immigrants from renting in Farmers Branch. "The ordinance provides no explanation or other sufficient guidance to property owners, property managers or tenants as to the meaning of 'eligible immigration status,'" the lawsuit states.

However, the primary argument is that the law exceeds the city's powers because only the U.S. federal government can enact and enforce immigration laws.


Legal residents upset

The 27 December 2006 immigration lawsuit by the ACLU and MALDEF is the third filed against Farmers Branch. Only one week earlier, a group of apartment owners asked a federal judge to declare the rental law unconstitutional. Earlier in the month, a local real estate agent alleged that city leaders repeatedly discussed the ordinance behind closed doors, violating Texas' open meetings law.

Opponents of the city ordinance collected enough valid signatures by the time of the lawsuit to force the City Council to repeal the measure or put it to a city vote. The original ordinance was discussed without enough public input under city statutes and then enacted as a law.

Citizens of the city and various special interests, by gathering enough signatures, can now force the City Council to justify the ordinance. The petitioners needed to collect the signatures of at least 5% of the voters registered for the upcoming May election.

Independent of the lawsuit, this will prevent the law from becoming effective on 12 January, as originally intended. The city charter requires that the council now repeal the measure or call a special election on the issue. If the issue goes to a vote, it would be placed on a ballot for 12 May 2007.


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