Leading Civil Rights Groups File Amicus Brief Seeking To Protect The Right To Housing For Latinos And Immigrants

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October 07, 2008

PLAINFIELD, NJ - Last Wednesday, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Immigrants’ Rights Project, the ACLU of New Jersey, the Seton Hall Law School Center for Social Justice and Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP (Fried Frank) filed a “friend of the court” brief in the case Del Rio-Mocci v. Connolly Properties, Inc., in order to protect the right to housing for Latinos and other immigrants and to thwart anti-immigrant efforts to compel landlords to enforce federal immigration law.

The brief was filed on behalf of leading organizations and institutions that represent the interests of, and provide services to, immigrant communities in New Jersey, including: the New Jersey Institution for Social Justice, the New Jersey Immigration Policy Network, the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, CATA – The Farmworkers’ Support Committee, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (“amici”).

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in New Jersey by the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI) – an organization that has sponsored a series of anti-immigrant municipal housing ordinances throughout the country – alleges that by renting apartments to undocumented immigrants, landlords are in violation of federal statutes which impose criminal penalties for harboring undocumented persons. In effect, plaintiffs are seeking to have federal law interpreted in a manner that will compel landlords to screen and investigate the immigration status of prospective tenants.

“If successful, plaintiffs’ suit would criminalize ordinary landlord-tenant relationships, and inevitably result in impermissible discrimination against all Latinos, including U.S. citizens and legal residents, in New Jersey and throughout the country,” stated Cynthia Valenzuela, MALDEF’s Director of Litigation. “Latinos and others – regardless of nationality or immigration status – will face additional scrutiny when attempting to secure or maintain housing because landlords will be hesitant to rent to individuals they perceive to be immigrants based solely on race or language ability. This is a dangerous and unlawful precedent that would ripple far beyond New Jersey and create a national climate of fear and racial profiling in the provision of housing,” she added.

Local anti-immigrant municipal housing ordinances have been consistently struck down by courts that found them to be plainly discriminatory and preempted by federal law. Since efforts to displace immigrants through unconstitutional local ordinances have been unsuccessful, IRLI now brings this suit that threatens to destabilize local communities and vulnerable populations by inducing the wrongful denial of housing to Latinos and other immigrants, creating fear in immigrant communities, and otherwise, sanctioning the wrongful denial of civil rights.

“New Jersey’s immigrant service providers are deeply troubled by this effort to deprive immigrant families of a roof over their heads,” said Bassina Farbenblum, an attorney at Seton Hall’s Center for Social Justice. “This lawsuit is yet another misguided attempt by anti-immigrant groups to end-run state and federal anti-discrimination laws and deny immigrant men, women and children their basic human right to shelter.”

“It's a huge stretch to claim that RICO, a law aimed at dismantling organized crime, stops landlords from renting to people they are legally allowed to rent to,” said ACLU of New Jersey Legal Director Ed Barocas. “The first attempts to run immigrants out of town failed in Hazleton, Pa., and Riverside, N.J., and this new backdoor attempt is no better.”

“Landlords are neither qualified nor authorized to act as de facto immigration agents,” said ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project attorney Eunice Lee. “They lack the skills and training to make immigration status determinations, and forcing them to do so will lead to wrongful denials of housing.”

The amicus brief, filed by leading organizations on behalf of organizations that represent or provide services to immigrant communities, urges the court to reject the claims presented in this unprecedented case and argues that a determination in plaintiffs’ favor will impermissibly require landlords to engage in immigration status determinations, and will inevitably result in unlawful discrimination against immigrants (including U.S. citizens and lawful residents) in New Jersey and throughout the country.

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