Judge Rules Against Immigration-Related Rental Ban

Judge rules against immigration-related rental ban

By Anabelle Garay
The Associated Press, August 30, 2008

Dallas (AP) — A federal judge issued a final judgment on Thursday permanently preventing a Dallas suburb from enforcing a rule banning apartment rentals to illegal immigrants.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Sam A. Lindsay could conclude a nearly two-year court battle over a never-enforced ordinance that would have required landlords to verify tenants' legal status.

The judgment also triggers a countdown to another immigration-related rule by Farmers Branch officials. City officials approved the new rule to take effect 15 days after a final judgment on the ordinance that was being litigated. It would require prospective tenants to get a rental license from the city. Farmers Branch would ask the federal government for the applicant's legal status before approving the rental license.

Opponents of the previous ordinance which included apartment complex operators, residents and advocates plan to challenge the new rule.

'It is similarly unconstitutional, it shares some problem and frankly creates others,' said attorney Bill Brewer, who represents a group of rental ban opponents. 'We would have hoped that they recognize that this is just not an area that this municipality or any municipality is supposed to delve into.'

The ruling Friday also sets up a two-week deadline for opponents of the rental ban to ask for attorney fees, which Farmers Branch would have to pay. Although a figure wasn't available, Brewer estimated attorney fees will run hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Both sides have 30 days to notify the court of plans to appeal. Farmers Branch officials were pleased to see a conclusion to the federal but have not yet decided if they will appeal, said attorney Michael Jung.

'We're glad to be moving forward,' said Jung, who represents Farmers Branch.

Even before issuing the final judgment Friday, Lindsay found the ordinance requiring landlords to verify legal status or citizenship was unconstitutional and could not be enforced.

The judge concluded that Farmers Branch officials didn't defer to the federal government in immigration matters. Instead, the city tried to create its own classification to determine which non-citizens could rent there.

Farmers Branch's ordinance also didn't comply with the due process clause of the 14th Amendment because it was vague, the judge ruled. The rule failed to provide clear guidance that immigration documents were acceptable and didn't explain what was meant by the ordinance phrase 'eligible immigration status,' the judge wrote.

'In terms especially of housing, this particularly is aligned with other decisions around the country that tell cities that courts find that type of ordinance crosses over into an area that the federal government has expressly deemed theirs,' said Marisol Perez, a staff attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which also challenged the ordinance.

Around the country, some 100 cities or counties have considered, passed or rejected laws focusing on illegal immigration, but Farmers Branch was the first in Texas, according to the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Farmers Branch stepped into the nationwide political debate over immigration in 2006 at the urging of then first-term city councilman and personal injury lawyer Tim O'Hare. He has since become mayor of the city, which has about 28,000 residents.

O'Hare did not immediately return a call for comment from The Associated Press.