Law Targeting Illegal Immigrants Challenged

Thomas Korosec, Houston Chronicle, Dec. 26, 2006

An immigration-related ordinance enacted by Farmers Branch discriminates against Latinos and will force families to separate, a lawsuit filed today by two rights groups alleges.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund is asking a federal court here to block the suburb from enforcing an ordinance banning apartment managers from leasing to illegal immigrants. The rental measure, which would fine apartment owners up to $500 a day for violations, was passed last month and is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 12.

“The power to regulate immigration belongs to the federal government, otherwise you’d have cities, counties, town, and other entities creating their own immigration laws, which would be unenforceable,” said Lisa Graybill, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

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Calls to Farmers Branch officials were referred to City Attorney Matthew Boyle, who declined to comment, except to say it was expected. “They’ve been threatening us with litigation since August or September, so it was our understanding that this would be filed,” he said.

Graybill said federal judges have cited the U.S. government’s overriding power to set and enforce immigration law in stopping Hazleton, Pa., and Escondido, Calif., from enforcing local ordinances aimed at curbing illegal immigration.

Boyle said Farmers Branch’s ordinance is “unique” and “drafted from scratch,” so rulings in other jurisdictions may not apply.

The ACLU/MALDEF suit alleges that Farmers Branch places landlords in the untenable position of acting as federal immigration officers. It also complains the ordinance is poorly drafted and excludes even some immigrants with proper legal status from renting in Farmers Branch apartment complexes.

Ten plaintiffs in the lawsuit include two adult Latino tenants who are legal residents but whom have family members who are not; five unidentified children whose parents are affected by the law and three apartment owners.

The suit alleges, among other things, that the ordinance denies citizen apartment dwellers their First Amendment right to free association because it bars them from living with relatives who are not legal residents.

It also alleges the ordinance discriminates against Latinos because 42 percent of Latino-headed households in the city live in apartment complexes. By contrast, only 14 percent households headed by whites live in apartment complexes.

The ordinance, which exempts rental houses and duplexes, fails to cite any studies, reports or statistics that support the conclusion that citizenship certification is necessary for the safety and welfare of Farmers Branch residents, the plaintiffs allege.

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Farmers Branch, which has a population of 27,000, is about 37 percent Hispanic, according to the 2000 census.

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