A Tough Line On Immigrants

By Toni Callas and Gaiutra Bahadur, Philadelphia Inquirer, July 26, 2006

Riverside, a faded Delaware River town recently transformed by immigrants, tonight will consider an ordinance that would ban hiring or renting to illegal immigrants.

The Burlington County township is the latest of about a dozen municipalities across the country to follow the example of Hazleton, Pa. That Poconos coal community made national headlines this summer by passing an ordinance that makes English its official language and imposes heavy fines on the landlords and employers of illegal immigrants.

Communities in Alabama, Massachusetts, California, Florida, Washington and Pennsylvania—including Allentown—have said they are so fed up with the federal government’s failure to crack down on illegal immigrants that they will take matters into their own hands.

“This is a national movement with copycat legislation all around the country,” said Lee Llambelis, legal director for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national civil-rights group based in New York. Her group plans to file legal challenges to the ordinances.

Riverside’s Township Council plans to hear final public comment tonight on its measure, which, unlike Hazleton’s law, does not declare an official language. The proposal is expected to bring out hordes of residents, business owners and landlords to voice their opinions.

Those opinions are strong in the tiny river town, where police estimate that 2,000 Brazilian immigrants have settled in the last five years—many in this country without permission. The community has experienced a clash of cultures, and the ordinance threatens to deepen divisions.

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But as Riverside prepares to delve into the emotional and polarizing issue of illegal immigration, questions have been raised about the town’s right to tackle it.

Despite inspiring other towns, the Hazleton ordinance is unlikely to withstand a legal challenge, according to attorneys for the Congressional Research Service.

The lawyers concluded that courts could not enforce most measures in the ordinance, if challenged, because they duplicate and are preempted by federal law. The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act already bars hiring or harboring an illegal immigrant.

Federal courts have overturned state and local efforts to wade into immigration law, including a voter-approved California ballot initiative that asked government workers to verify legal status before receiving benefits.

The research service, an arm of Congress, analyzed the Hazleton proposals at the request of U.S. Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski, a Democrat whose district includes Hazleton. Its reply to Kanjorski stated: “The Supreme Court has long recognized that the regulation of immigration ‘is unquestionably exclusively a federal power.’ “

The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania are preparing to challenge the Hazleton ordinance, which takes effect Oct. 1.

Llambelis said towns that passed similar measures could expect to be sued, too.

Some towns are giving way before the looming legal challenge. On Monday night, council members in the citrus town of Avon Park, Fla. defeated, 3-2, an ordinance that would have penalized employers and landlords of illegal immigrants.

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