Yet another locality learned the financial perils of passing an anti-immigrant law. Last Friday, a panel from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court decision to require the City of Hazelton, PA, to pay $2.4 million in legal fees to the Plaintiffs instead of their insurance carrier. The Plaintiffs (Pedro Lozano, Casa Dominicana of Hazleton Inc., Hazleton Hispanic Business Association and the Pennsylvania Statewide Latino Coalition) accumulated legal fees when they challenged the constitutionality of the Hazleton law—a law which would have fined landlords renting to undocumented immigrants, denied businesses permits if they employed undocumented immigrants, and had the town investigate the legal status of an employee or tenant upon request of any citizen, business, or organization.

The Third Circuit panel held that Scottsdale Insurance Co. was only required to cover decisions which awarded monetary damages, not legal fees. The fight, however, is not over. First, says city solicitor Christpher Slusser, the city will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. After a decision at that level, the trial court will have to make a determination as to whether they agree with the math resulting in the $2.4 million tab requested by the Plaintiffs (a decision which could be appealed as well).

All of the questions above, however, will be irrelevant if the Supreme Court overturns the Third Circuit’s decision that the Hazelton law itself is unconstitutional. Said one of the Plaintiffs’ attorneys in 2008:

We are currently handling a high-profile case, Lozano v. Hazleton, involving a challenge to the Hazleton, PA., illegal immigration ordinances. Our team of six attorneys has dedicated thousands of hours to this case – our single largest pro bono matter to date. Lost in the rancorous debate over immigration policy is the fact that the Hazleton case does not seek to vindicate illegal immigration. Our clients simply sought to restore immigration enforcement to the federal government – where it belongs.

The City of Fremont, Nebraska, already understands the enforcement lesson Hazleton may soon learn. Fremont passed and then decided not to implement a costly anti-immigrant law which they estimated would cost the city $750,000 per year to defend. Farmers Branch, Texas, has already spent about $3.2 million to defend itself since September 2006, when it launched the first of three ordinances. The city has budgeted $623,000 for legal expenses through the rest of the fiscal year related to the ordinance defense. Legal costs could exceed $5 million by the end of the fiscal year.

Hazelton has already spent at least $420,000 of the $430,000 it collected in contributions to defend the law, and now faces paying up to $2.4 million to the Plaintiffs as well. The Migration Policy Institute suggests that the Hazelton law, as well as many other anti-immigrant ordinances, come as a reaction to increases in the immigrant population. From 2000 to 2007, the immigrant share of the population increased from 3.7% to 14%.

Localities would do well to learn that passing immigration enforcement legislation—while perhaps making residents feel like something is being done about our immigration problems—not only proves costly to the local economy, but does nothing to actually solve our immigration problems at the national or local level. Furthermore, supporting strict enforcement legislation is also likely to alienate legal immigrants, who like it or not, contribute to their local economy.

Photo by Reuben Whitehouse