Federal Court Blocks Dallas Suburb’s Ban on Undocumented Immigrant Renters

A federal appeals court has overturned a Dallas suburb’s ordinance that would ban undocumented immigrants from renting apartments, affirming federal authority in developing and implementing immigration laws.

In the latest blow to local and state governments passing laws to restrict immigrant rights, the notoriously conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals declared on Monday that Farmers Branch, Texas, cannot enforce the ordinance because it conflicts with federal law.

If the law had been affirmed by the appeals court, Farmers Branch could have required all renters to have licenses, mandated that the city’s building inspector check renters’ immigration status, and fined landlords who rented apartments to undocumented immigrants.

The decision is a victory for undocumented immigrants, as the court said that being in the country illegally is not a crime on its own and thus cannot be used to deny undocumented immigrants the ability to rent an apartment. The court also noted the ordinance “not only fails to facilitate, but obstructs the goal of bringing potentially removable noncitizens to the attention of the federal authorities” because undocumented immigrants who may be deported need to give the federal government a permanent home address.

This is a departure from the Fifth Circuit’s usual stance on immigrants; in the past, the court has ruled that the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures do not apply to undocumented immigrants, and denied asylum to an Albanian woman fleeing the mob, even though she faced certain death at home.

The Farmers Branch ruling was predicated on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year to strike down parts of Arizona’s S.B. 1070 law, which declared that no state or local government is allowed to “achieve its own immigration policy.”

This is the second time the court has blocked Farmers Branch’s law on the basis of local governments overstepping their boundaries. In March 2012, a three-judge panel first overturned the law, declaring that “the ordinance’s sole purpose is not to regulate housing but to exclude undocumented aliens — specifically Latinos — from the City of Farmers Branch and that it is an impermissible regulation of immigration.” Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a former Romney immigration adviser and anti-immigrant advocate, is largely responsible for the law and argued in the case for Farmers Branch. In a rare move, the full court decided to rehear the case in September, but evidently, the ordinance suffered the same fate.

Similar laws around the country have resulted in different outcomes. In June, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a renters’ ordinance in Fremont, Nebraska, rejecting the idea that municipal immigration laws override federal authority. Now that the Fifth Circuit has struck down the Farmers Branch ordinance, it is likely the U.S. Supreme Court will be next to take up the issue.