Friday, June 22, 2007
A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction this week against a Texas city ordinance that made it unlawful to rent housing to illegal immigrants. The court decision probably will work to discourage the on-again, off-again efforts of local governments to strike blows, through land use laws, mostly symbolic but potentially dangerous, against illegal immigration. If the ordinance dies, I won't mourn its passing.
The court's ruling was based in large part on separation of powers concerns, in that the ordinance of Farmers Branch, Texas, appeared to define a person as an illegal immigrant in a manner that was somewhat different from federal immigration law. Because only Congress can regulate immigration, the argument goes, the town usurped uniquely federal law. This argument leaves open the possibility that a better-worded law could pass muster under the separation of powers inquiry.
Of greater interest to me is how such sporadic local housing laws would affect land use and the movement of illegal immigrants in the United States. If enforced, such laws probably would have little effect on the overall level of immigration (they probably would have no greater effect than have the federal employment laws, which were designed to discourage immigration but have largely failed to do so). But the local laws might make life somewhat more difficult for existing immigrants - both legal and illegal. Poor immigrants would probably end up living further from their jobs, creating transportation difficulties, or living illegally in hovels and under assumed names. Towns might be encouraged by a vicious circle to try to push immigrants to their neighbors. There might be a few "winners" from these effects, but the nation as a whole, including the average of American citizen, would not be among them.
And of course perhaps the most significant effect would be that persons of Hispanic heritage, or anybody with an accent, might find it difficult to secure rental housing. Many landlords, especially of low-cost housing, would avoid the risk of fines or other punishment by refusing to rent to odd-talking persons, regardless of what papers the prospective renter can show the landlord. A fairly certain indirect effect of local laws on renting to illegal immigrants, therefore, would be to generate large amounts of housing discrimination on the basis of race and national origin.