Thursday, October 11, 2007
Calif. law bars landlords from asking tenants' immigration status.
California is again forging its own path on immigration reform by becoming the first state to prohibit landlords from asking tenants' immigration status.
Amid frustration over the federal government's failure to reform immigration laws, cities across the country have taken their own action to keep out illegal immigrants, including barring property from being rented to undocumented tenants
The law signed this week by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger elicited a sigh of relief among landlord associations concerned that without it, they'd be forced to take on the cost and the liability of enforcing federal laws as “de-facto immigration cops,” said Nancy Ahlswede, executive director of the Apartment Association, California Southern Cities.
“We have huge anti-discrimination obligations,” said Ahlswede, whose organization was among the legislation's sponsors. “We understand the frustration, but that burden shouldn't be placed on landlords.”
California has often made headlines by staking new ground on immigration, whether with measures like Proposition 187 – a 1994 ballot initiative meant to deny illegal immigrants social services, health care, and public education – or by kicking off earlier this year the “New Sanctuary Movement,” in which churches seek to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation.
This latest law pushes against a national trend that finds tensions over immigration and shifting demographics increasingly being dealt with on a city-by-city and issue-by-issue basis.
More than 90 cities or counties nationwide have considered ordinances that aim to discourage illegal immigrants from settling by making their daily life more difficult. Those include rules forbidding renting to undocumented immigrants, punishing businesses that hire them or requiring police to ask about immigration status.
Proponents of immigration control view the California law as another attempt to block citizens from defending their interests in an area where the federal government has failed.
“It's clear that Washington, D.C. doesn't want to deal with this problem,” said Rick Oltman, with Californians for Population Stabilization. “You have cities that want to deal with the problem and this bill would stop them, making them powerless to deal with the illegal alien community.”
This view is reflected across the country. Hazleton, Pa., for example, has become a city whose name is synonymous with local action against unauthorized immigration.
Hazleton passed an ordinance last year penalizing landlords who rent to them and employers who hire them. The rule was struck down in federal court as unconstitutional. The city is appealing, and a hearing is expected in the spring.
California's law “certainly adds salt to the wound for mayors who are trying to protect their legal residents and their budgets from the burden of illegal immigration,” said Hazelton Mayor Lou Barletta.
The mayor is hoping to take the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court, aiming for a ruling that would bring relief to cities around the country trying to follow the same path.
But organizations that have taken local governments to court on the issue argued laws asking landlords to pry into their tenants' immigration status infringes privacy and discrimination statutes, and pre-empts the federal government's authority.
“If the federal government wants to go after someone, they can do that, but a city can't,” said Kristina Campbell, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, who worked on the lawsuit against Escondido, Calif., which also passed an ordinance punishing landlords who rent to undocumented immigrants.
The suit was settled out of court when costs ballooned, city officials said.
Generally, any proposition that orders those not trained in immigration law to determine whether an immigrant is in the country legally is fraught with potential problems, immigrant advocates said.
The law is complicated and a property owner trying to hazard a guess about someone's immigration status could rely on someone's looks or their accent, leading to discrimination, said Reshma Shamasunder, director of the California Immigrant Policy Center.
Greg McConnell, who has two rental properties and helped organize landlords in Berkeley to support the bill, said he's just glad to be out of the cross-hairs of a “bitter and inflammatory” debate that's much larger than they are.
“It's not a question of where landlords stand on the immigration issue, it's a question of who's to enforce those laws,” he said