Supreme Court demands review of ruling in anti-illegal immigration case

A federal appeals court ruled that the anti-illegal immigration laws of Hazleton, Pa., clashed with federal authority. But the Supreme Court is telling the appeals court to reconsider the case.

Steve Klaver/AP/File
This June 3, 2007, file photo shows a rally in support of then-Mayor Lou Barletta in Hazleton, Pa. Barletta proposed the Illegal Immigration Relief Act in 2006.

The US Supreme Court on Monday ordered a federal appeals court to reexamine whether Hazleton, Pa., can restrict illegal immigrants' ability to work and rent housing.

A federal judge and a panel of the Third US Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia had blocked the local laws, saying they clash with the careful balance struck by Congress in federal immigration statutes.

On Monday, the Supreme Court, in a summary order, vacated the Third Circuit’s September 2010 decision and remanded the case for further consideration in light of the high court’s May 26 opinion upholding a similar law in Arizona that punishes companies that employ illegal immigrants.

In that case, Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting, the high court ruled 5 to 3 that the Arizona law was not preempted by federal immigration statutes. The justices upheld Arizona’s use of its business licensing scheme to require that employers hire only authorized immigrants or other legal workers and use the federal e-Verify system to check an immigrant’s legal status.

The high court’s decision in the Arizona case is providing new momentum to efforts at the state and local level to enact measures to counter perceived lax federal enforcement of immigration laws.

Frustration over immigration issues is not unique to Hazleton or Arizona. Similar immigration measures have been adopted in Mississippi, Oklahoma, Utah, Tennessee, Louisiana, West Virginia, Colorado, Minnesota, Georgia, and Rhode Island.

In 2009, more than 1,500 bills were introduced at the local and state level in an attempt to beef up immigration enforcement. Of the 1,500 bills, 222 became law and 131 were adopted as resolutions.

In appealing to the Supreme Court, lawyers for Hazleton said the local ordinances work in concert with federal immigration law, not at cross purposes with it.

Hazleton is a city of 30,000 in northeastern Pennsylvania. During the past decade the town saw an influx of more than 10,000 new residents. Most of them were Hispanic and moved to the town from New York and New Jersey.

The city government believed that many of the new residents were not legally present in the US. After concluding that illegal immigrants were contributing to a higher crime rate and imposing greater costs in terms of government social services, local officials passed two ordinances designed to deter illegal immigrants from settling in Hazleton.

One ordinance made it illegal to hire or continue to employ an illegal immigrant in Hazleton. A second ordinance made it illegal to rent a house or apartment to an illegal immigrant.

Like the Arizona law upheld by the Supreme Court, the Hazleton ordinances were tied to local licensing schemes. Under the employment ordinance, the city would revoke a company’s business license if it employed an illegal immigrant. The rental ordinance threatened to revoke an individual’s rental license if the landlord was found to be renting to an illegal immigrant.

The city said the provisions did not clash with federal immigration law, rather they complimented the federal framework.

A group of immigrants – including some illegal immigrants – and a Hispanic business group filed suit with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. They sought to block enforcement of the two provisions.

Although it is illegal under federal law to harbor an illegal immigrant and to hire an illegal immigrant, the a federal judge and the Third Circuit ruled that the local ordinances were preempted by federal immigration laws.

Lawyers for the city had argued local officials were forced to pass the ordinances because the federal government was not effectively enforcing federal immigration laws.

Lawyers for the immigrants countered that Congress established a comprehensive regulation of immigration that carefully balanced the goal of deterring illegal immigration while protecting employers from harm and authorized workers from discrimination.

The case is Hazleton v. Lozano (10-772).

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