WASHINGTON -- A federal judge struck down a Pennsylvania city's ordinance that sought to punish landlords who rented to illegal immigrants and employers who hired them, ruling yesterday that immigration law is the province of the federal government.
The Hazleton measure had become an inspiration for a growing movement among state and city officials to enact local laws to combat illegal immigration. Supporters say Washington has failed to control national borders or deal with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.
Activists on both sides of the issue said yesterday's decision dealt a major setback but not a final defeat to local initiatives.
"Immigration is a national issue," U.S. District Judge James M. Munley said in knocking down the ordinance adopted last year in Hazleton, a city of about 30,000 situated 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
Led by the city's outspoken mayor, Louis J. Barletta, the City Council voted to impose fines on landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and to revoke the business permits of employers who hire them.
Munley concluded that local officials did not have the authority to go beyond federal law and impose such penalties.
"Allowing states or local governments to legislate with regard to the employment of unauthorized aliens would interfere with congressional objectives" to control immigration policy, Munley said.
The judge also noted that people who are in the United States illegally have the legal right to challenge discriminatory ordinances in court. "We cannot say clearly enough that persons who enter this country without legal authorization are not stripped immediately of all their rights because of this single illegal act," Munley wrote.
He noted that the U.S. Constitution says no "person" may be deprived of "due process of law" and added that the Supreme Court has said this protection extends to those who enter the country illegally.
Civil-liberties lawyers who sued to void the Hazleton ordinance hailed the ruling.
"Today's decision sends an unmistakable message to local officials across the nation that these types of ordinances are a waste of taxpayers' money, anathema to American values and a violation of the Constitution," said Omar Jadwat of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project.
Advocates of stricter measures against illegal immigrants said they were confident the Supreme Court would uphold a Hazleton-style ordinance.
"What's at stake ... is the right of local communities to govern how business and commerce are conducted within their jurisdictions," said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
David G. Savage and Nicole Gaouette write for the Los Angeles Times.