The topic of illegal immigration remains a front-burner issue heading into the final weeks of this year’s congressional elections. Many voters, spurred at least in part by the Tea Party movement, are demanding that candidates openly support strict — even Draconian — federal and state laws aimed at identifying and punishing illegal aliens and those who are seen as “harboring” them, including employers and even landlords. This zeal to attack the problem of illegal immigration (and it is a problem) in recent years has prompted a number of local governments to enact ordinances that seriously undermine fundamental liberties intended to be enjoyed by all of us. Thankfully, a federal Court of Appeals earlier this month struck down one such measure in Hazleton, Pennsylvania.
The Hazleton law, enacted in 2006, attacked the problem of illegal immigrants within its jurisdiction in a number of ways. For example, landlords were prohibited from renting homes, apartments or rooms to anyone not lawfully in the country. This prohibition would have forced any person proposing to rent out even a room to someone else, to demand proof that the prospective lessee was in the country lawfully; other citizens were encouraged to file complaints with the city against suspected offending landlords. Apparently oblivious to this infringement of the fundamental right to control one’s property and to enter into contracts, many conservatives applauded Hazleton’s tough stance.
Proposals similar to the Hazleton ordinance were proposed and discussed in numerous other jurisdictions, including here in Georgia. Some jurisdictions actually moved to adopt such intrusive measures; that is, until a federal trial court ruled Hazleton’s law unconstitutional in 2007. Now, three years later, that decision has been affirmed by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
Many so-called conservatives, and probably many Tea Party supporters will likely rail against the appeals court decision, because it is not openly and fully supportive of combating illegal immigration above all else. This is unfortunate, since the Hazleton decision is — at its core — actually a reaffirmation of property rights and the right to contract, and it is based on a sound understanding of the proper federalist split of authority between the federal government and state and local governments, as incorporated in our Constitution.