Dallas suburb's renting ordinance blocked

AP News
Posted: Jul 23, 2013 3:41 PM

DALLAS (AP) — The city of Farmers Branch will decide soon whether to continue a long, expensive fight to defend an ordinance designed to keep immigrants without legal permission to be in the country from renting.

The 5th U.S. Court of Appeals issued another blow to the ordinance Monday in ruling it unconstitutional. Council members of the suburb just north of Dallas are scheduled to discuss their options next month, Michael Jung, an attorney for Farmers Branch, said Tuesday.

Farmers Branch, a nearly 30,000-person bedroom community that is about 45 percent Latino, is one of several cities nationwide that has targeted immigration by enacting renting restrictions. The ordinance Farmers Branch passed in 2008 would have required all renters to obtain city licenses and for a city official to deny licenses to anyone found to be here illegally. Landlords who didn't comply could have faced fines or revocation of their renters' licenses.

The 5th U.S. Court of Appeals on Monday ruled that the law encroached on territory reserved to federal law enforcement. It relied heavy on last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down parts of the Arizona immigration law for similar reasons.

Unless the Supreme Court steps in, Farmers Branch won't be allowed to enforce the ordinance. While Farmers Branch's opponents said the high court made itself clear with the Arizona case, Jung pointed said another appeals court had allowed the eastern Nebraska city of Fremont to enforce a similar law.

That creates a conflict between appeals courts that could prompt the Supreme Court to take one of those cases, Jung said.

"At this point, the ruling is against it, but we'll see what comes in the future," Jung said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, an anti-illegal immigration advocate who helped write and defend the laws in Farmers Branch and Fremont, called the two ordinances "virtually identical."

"Given all of these factors, I think the case is not closed, so to speak," Kobach said.

Fighting for immigration laws has cost the city almost $6 million, according to a city spokesman, and lasted more than seven years since the first version of the renters' ordinance was passed. Officials say they have tried to be hospitable to Latino residents. Voters elected the city's first Latino city council member earlier this year.

That vote came after a federal judge ruled that Farmers Branch had to elect council members by district, not at large. Latinos had argued the at-large system preserved an all-white city council and denied them fair representation.

Salvador Ramirez, a 40-year-old man who said he was an undocumented immigrant with four U.S.-born children and works at a Farmers Branch dry cleaners, said relatives told him to leave Texas altogether when the renters' ordinance was passed.

"During that time, a lot of people across the nation heard about Farmers Branch," he said in Spanish. "I would get calls from my brothers in North Carolina and they were asking me why I haven't left the city and moved somewhere else."

Pro-immigrant rights groups are skeptical that the Supreme Court will step in. An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union accused proponents of strict renters' laws of selling towns like Farmers Branch "a bill of goods."

Omar Jadwat, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, said the decision against Farmers Branch "really kind of demonstrates the lack of legal foundation in the folly of going down this road."

Being in the United States without legal permission isn't a crime on its own, the court said, and immigrants in the process of deportation are often required to give agents a reliable address. Banning immigrants from renting apartments "not only fails to facilitate, but obstructs the goal of bringing potentially removable noncitizens to the attention of the federal authorities," the court said.

Judges also questioned the process in which a renter or a landlord would be told to appeal a decision under the law in Texas state court. The appeals court said that could open "the door to conflicting state and federal rulings on the question" of whether someone could legally live in America.

Other towns that have fought to enact similar laws have seen mixed success. A federal appeals court ruled against a renters' ordinance in Hazleton, Pa., while a different court allowed Fremont's law to go into effect.


Associated Press writer Uriel J. Garcia contributed to this report from Farmers Branch, Texas.

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