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Court cites federal immigration law, declares local measure unconstitutional

As the controversial law kicks in, residents and law enforcement officials struggle to make sense of the situation in the town of Benson, Ariz.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010; 8:57 PM

A law approved four years ago by Hazleton, Pa., clamping down on illegal immigrants, which prompted similar moves in towns across the country, has been declared unconstitutional by a federal appeals court.

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The city's Illegal Immigration Relief Act would penalize landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and employers who hire them.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit on Thursday upheld a lower court ruling concluding that cities and towns did not have the power to enact such legislation, ruling that authority over illegal immigration lies solely with the federal government.

It is the latest in a string of court challenges to local measures aimed at illegal immigration. A similar ordinance approved by residents of Fremont, Neb., has been put on hold by the city, which anticipates a court challenge.

Key sections of a statewide ordinance in Arizona, which allowed police officers to check the immigration status of suspects stopped for something else, were held up by a federal judge in July after challenges by the federal government and others.

The Hazleton measure would have fined landlords who rented to illegal immigrants and revoked permits from businesses employing undocumented workers.

Chief Judge Theodore McKee's 188-page opinion concluded that the ordinance was "pre-empted by federal immigration law and unconstitutional."

"We are . . . required to intervene when states and localities directly undermine the federal objectives embodied in statutes enacted by Congress," he wrote.

The city's mayor, Lou Barletta, had pushed through the measure after two illegal immigrants were charged in a shooting in 2006. It was immediately challenged in the courts and struck down by a federal judge in 2007 before it was enforced.

When he introduced the regulations, Barletta said that illegal immigrants had brought drugs and violence with them, adding that he hoped to make Hazleton "the toughest place on illegal immigrants in America."

Barletta, making his third run for Congress, has featured the law prominently in his campaign.

On Thursday, he pledged to take the battle to the Supreme Court, dismissing the Philadelphia appeals court as the nation's most liberal on immigration matters.

"The city of Hazleton will continue to pursue this case, not only because we are right, but also because other communities are counting on us."

Witold Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said his organization was "thrilled" by the court's action.

"Today's decision is a pointed repudiation of such anti-local immigrant laws and a warning to other communities considering similarly misguided legislation," he said.

Cesar Perales, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, said the Latinos who brought the case to court "knew this law was intended to drive them out of Hazleton."

"The court clearly recognized this danger," he said.

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