The Supreme Court declined Monday to review a ruling that overturned a Pennsylvania town's effort to fight illegal immigration, leaving the legal situation muddled for communities.
Justices declined without comment to hear an appeal from Hazleton, Pa., which saw an appeals court strike down its ordinances prohibiting illegal immigrants from renting rooms and barring businesses from employing them.
But a different appeals court last year upheld a similar ordinance from Fremont, Neb., and backers said the Supreme Court should have stepped in to provide a final answer.
"Simply put, if Hazleton were in Nebraska instead of Pennsylvania, the city would be able to enforce its law. But for the unfortunate fact of geography, the law of the land in the Midwest is deemed unconstitutional in Pennsylvania," said Rep. Lou Barletta, the Pennsylvania Republican who was mayor of Hazleton at the time the town passed its ordinance.
While the national debate on immigration has stalled in recent years, states and localities have tried to fill the void. While some localities have pushed for their own enforcement, others have passed measures giving more help to illegal immigrants and, in some cases, preventing local police from cooperating with federal authorities.
The Obama administration challenged states such as Arizona who tried crackdowns, but has yet to go after other states and cities that are refusing to cooperate with federal laws.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court upheld some of Arizona's pioneering crackdown law, but overturned other parts that would have set state penalties for those in the country without authorization.
After that ruling, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals went back and took a new look at Hazleton's ordinances. The judges concluded that the town was infringing on federal prerogatives.
"Hazleton may not unilaterally prohibit those lacking lawful status from living within its boundaries, without regard for the executive branch's enforcement and policy priorities," the appeals court ruled.
In the Nebraska case, the ordinance required police to check the lawful status of anyone wishing to rent in Fremont. The appeals court upheld that, saying that it would only conflict with federal prerogatives if the national government created a conflict.
"It seems obvious that, if the federal government will be unable to definitively report that an alien is 'unlawfully present,' then the rental provisions are simply ineffectual. Plaintiffs and the United States do not explain why a local law is conflict pre-empted when the federal government has complete power to avoid the conflict," the decision said.
Fremont voters last year voted to keep the housing ordinance on the books.
For its part, Congress appears split on how much authority to give to localities as part of any new immigration law. The bill that passed the Senate last year would prohibit most state law enforcement efforts, while House Republicans are eyeing legislation that would promote state efforts.
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