Supreme Court agrees to hear case about foreigners' rights

Does 1866 law give aliens same contract rights as U.S. citizens?

April 27, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court moved yesterday toward deciding one of the most important issues affecting aliens who live in the United States: whether they have the right to equal treatment in jobs, in buying and selling property and in securing credit and other business dealings.

The court voted to hear a labor union's appeal, which argued that the policy of treating non-citizens differently from citizens is centuries old and should be kept intact.

A federal appeals court has ruled that an 1866 law guarantees aliens in the United States the same right as citizens to enter into private contracts.

That outcome, however, is disputed by another federal appeals court, which ruled that the old law does not protect aliens from discrimination in any private business dealings.

The Supreme Court will hold a hearing on the case, probably in November, and will rule next year.

While the outcome will clearly affect aliens who have a legal right to be in the United States, its effect on illegal aliens is unclear.

If aliens are treated worse because they are illegal, that treatment apparently would not run afoul of the 1866 law. But if they suffer discriminatory treatment based solely on their status as noncitizens, the law could apply. Illegal aliens do not lose all their rights solely because of their illegality.

The issue is raised in an appeal by the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, and its Local 17 in New York City. The union and its local were sued by Linden D. Anderson, a native of Jamaica and a legal alien in the United States, after he was barred from a union position because he was not a citizen.

In their challenge to the appeals court ruling against them, the union and its local argued that because Congress had not chosen to protect aliens against bias in jobs under the broad Title VII of 1964 Civil Rights Act, there is no basis for providing similar protection under the 1866 law.

While federal immigration laws require sanctions against companies that hire illegal aliens, the appeals court said, that treatment is based on their illegal status, not on their foreign citizenship.

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