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NEW ORLEANS – In a 9-5 ruling issued Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit struck down a discriminatory, anti-immigrant ordinance in Farmers Branch, Texas, that would have prohibited landlords from renting to immigrants that the city considered unlawfully present, and authorized arrest and prosecution of landlords and tenants found in violation of the law. Under the ordinance, all prospective renters would have been required to provide information about their immigration status and obtain a rental license from the city building inspector, who would be responsible for determining immigration status. It would also have authorized the city of Farmers Branch to revoke the rental license of anyone found to be unlawfully present in the U.S. based on verification of immigration status with the federal government.
The controversial housing ordinance never went into effect, having been blocked by the federal district court and a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit before reaching the full en banc Fifth Circuit Court.
"By a large margin, the judges of the Fifth Circuit properly ruled that Famers Branch's anti-immigrant housing ordinance is fundamentally unconstitutional," said Omar Jadwat, attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants' Rights Project. "Their ruling will prevent municipal governments from investigating and discriminating against immigrants and people of color. This law now joins many others of its kind that have been discredited and abandoned to history's scrapheap through a series of court rulings."
Beginning in 2006, the city of Farmers Branch, Texas, passed a series of housing ordinances designed to prevent undocumented immigrants from being able to rent apartments or homes. The ordinances were part of an effort to drive immigrants from the city by making life as difficult as possible. Each of the ordinances has been blocked by the federal courts as the result of litigation brought by the ACLU, the ACLU of Texas, and MALDEF.
"The en banc court got it right in concluding that this inhumane and wasteful ordinance is unconstitutionally inconsistent with the federal immigration enforcement scheme," said Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF. "Other cities that may be considering similar laws should take note of this important outcome."
In its ruling, the court said the Farmers Branch ordinance was unconstitutional because it conflicted with federal immigration law. The court relied on guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court's 2012 decision invalidating provisions of Arizona's SB 1070, and emphasized that allowing city "officers to arrest an individual whom they believe to be not lawfully present would allow the [city] to achieve its own immigration policy and could be unnecessary harassment of some aliens … whom federal officials determine should not be removed." A concurring opinion in the decision issued Monday noted that because the "purpose and effect" of the ordinance was "the exclusion of Latinos from the city of Farmers Branch," "legislation of [this] type is not entitled to wear the cloak of constitutionality." Nine judges held the ordinance unconstitutional, while only five judges would have upheld it.
"All of Texas benefits from the contributions of immigrants who live and work in our state," said Rebecca L. Robertson, legal and policy director of the ACLU of Texas. "We fervently hope that this case marks the end of the anti-immigrant laws that target our friends, our neighbors, and our family members for harsh treatment."
Attorneys working on the case include Omar Jadwat, Jennifer Chang Newell, and Lucas Guttentag of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project; Rebecca Robertson of the ACLU of Texas; Nina Perales and Marisa Bono of MALDEF.