Dallas Suburb Can't Force Illegal Immigrant Renters Out, Court Says

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If you've never been to Farmers Branch, you haven't missed much.

It's a neighborhood/suburban bubble/town engulfed by Dallas's urban sprawl, and it's such a bland place you'd probably never have noticed or heard tell of it until the city government enacted a controversial housing law back in May 2007. We all heard about good old Farmers Branch then.

Back in 2006, city councilman Tim O'Hare proposed a law that included provisions to fine landlords who rented to illegal immigrants in the town of just under 29,000. The ordinance was passed by the city council and -- after some legal wrangling and political opposition -- was eventually approved in a vote of about 68 percent in Farmers Branch.

Under the ordinance, all prospective renters would be required to provide information about their immigration status and obtain a rental license from the city building inspector who would also be responsible for determining immigration status. The ordinance would also authorize the city to revoke the rental license of anyone found to be unlawfully present in the United States.

The ordinance was approved when it appeared on the ballot, but the court put the ordinance on hold on May 21, 2007, the day before it started.

The ordinance was opposed as a result of litigation from the America Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education fund, the usual suspects in these shindigs.

It seemed like the case had been settled once and for all in when a three-judge panel ruled against Farmers Branch in March 2012, but last September the appeals court agreed to rehear the case, en banc, NBCDFW reported. The hearing of the full court is an unusual move, prompting some to speculate that the court might overturn the decision, which, obviously, didn't happen. Last Monday, the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals struck down the law entirely in a 9-5 ruling. "Their ruling will prevent municipal governments from investigating and discriminating against immigrants and people of color," Omar Jadwat, an attorney with the ACLU, stated in a release. "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."

In the ruling, the court said the law was unconstitutional because it conflicted with federal immigration law. The court was guided by the Supreme Court's 2012 ruling to strike down parts of an Arizona law that allowed police officers to arrest people they suspected of being in the country illegally.

"America's history has long been a story of immigrants," the opinion leads, quoting a Presidential speech commemorating the 100th anniversary of Ellis Island.

Judge Stephen Higginson felt that Farmers Branch was responding to an aroused public consciousness and a feeling that the federal government was not enforcing the law, Farmer's Branch sought to enforce it locally by preventing illegal immigrants from moving into the area, he wrote in the majority opinion. But Higginson noted in the opinion that the renting law would interfere with federal immigration law and give state authorities the right to "hold aliens in custody for possible unlawful presence without federal direction of supervision."

The five justices that voted against the majority noted in a dissenting opinion, arguing that the ordinance would not "criminalize" illegal immigrants in Farmers Branch, arguing that the "Higginson opinion misreads the actions that constitute offense under the ordinance."

This must have been a bit of comfort to the folks over in Farmers Branch, now on the losing end of things after having spent almost $6 million on legal bills related to the ordinance. That's a lot of cash, even for the more affluent world of Dallas suburbia.

A handful of other communities have attempted to follow Farmers Branch and enact laws and regulations along similar lines. An attempt in Pennsylvania wasn't upheld in court, but a different appeals court signed off on a similar ordinance for a city in Nebraska.

However, unless the case gets the Supreme Court's interest, this will be the last word on this rental ordinance in Farmers Branch.

So you won't need a license to live in Farmers Branch now. The big question is who would want to live there anyway? (Maybe for the aquatic center slated to open in 2014? It's supposed to be real nice.)

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