Yesterday the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals declared the Farmers Branch, Texas, anti-immigrant ordinance unconstitutional. The decision, which came in a suit brought by the ACLU and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, is the latest in a long line of suspensions, withdrawals, and invalidations of "self-deportation" laws, including ordinances in Hazleton, Pa.; Escondido, Calif. and Riverside, N.J., and key aspects of Arizona's S.B. 1070 and similar state laws in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Utah, and Indiana.
The court's opinion rejects the defense, offered over and over in these cases (by the same lawyers that tout the laws as a potent immigration policy tool), that these ordinances and statutes are not really about immigration but are instead about matters of legitimate local concern: "We conclude that the ordinance's sole purpose is not to regulate housing but to exclude undocumented aliens, specifically Latinos, from the City of Farmers Branch and that it is an impermissible regulation of immigration." It also pushes back strongly against attempts by the architects of the "self-deportation" strategy to demonize undocumented immigrants. "[T]he great majority live quietly, raise families, obey the law daily, and do work for our country" and "contribute to our welfare"; yet the ordinance, the court explains, "exemplifies" "verbal and legal discrimination against these people."
As the Supreme Court prepares to hear argument on the constitutionality of S.B. 1070 on April 25, this decision is a timely reminder that, while there are many technical legal steps along the way, courts can and should focus on what everyone knows is really at stake here: whether states and cities will be allowed to legislate discrimination, and whether they will be allowed to enact their own local immigration laws and policies. As this opinion makes clear, the right answer is "No."