Local Immigration Laws Bring High Costs to Small Cities

Cities across the U.S. are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars defending themselves against lawsuits and other challenges to ordinances enacted to keep out illegal immigrants.

Some are warning that these communities are risking financial disaster in their effort to curb illegal immigration.

More than 90 cities or counties around the country have proposed, passed or rejected laws prohibiting landlords from leasing to illegal immigrants, penalizing businesses that employ undocumented workers or training police to enforce immigration laws.

Approval of these anti-illegal immigration ordinances has generated criticism, demonstrations and lawsuits in Valley Park, Mo.; Riverside, N.J.; Escondido, Calif.; Hazleton, Pa. and the Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch.

In some instances, taxpayer money has been used to hire private attorneys to fight legal challenges. In others, private donations or insurance have offset part of the costs.

The city paying perhaps the biggest price for its entry into the immigration debate is Farmers Branch, which last fall became the first in Texas to ban landlords from renting apartments to illegal immigrants. Almost immediately, civil rights groups, residents, property owners and businesses filed four separate lawsuits challenging the ordinance.

Documents reviewed by The Associated Press show the city paid the Irving-based law firm of Boyle and Lowry almost $262,000 in immigration-related legal fees — mostly with taxpayer money — through March.

Council members last month increased the city's legal budget to $444,000.

"I have heard people say we can't afford it, that's not true," said Tim O'Hare, the Farmers Branch councilman who led efforts to adopt the ordinance. "I have heard people say it costs the taxpayer and it does. But the costs of having illegal immigrant living in the city are more."

For now, a judge has issued a temporary restraining order preventing the city from enforcing the ordinance.

Opponents also submitted a petition with enough signatures to force a citywide May 12 vote on whether to rescind the ordinance or let it stand.

A group of former city leaders is urging voters to rescind the measure, saying Farmers Branch and its 28,000 residents could end up spending millions of dollars defending the ordinance if the lawsuits go to trial.

"It's not because I'm in favor of illegal immigration. That is not the questions here. The question is what is this ordinance doing ... and it's very little. But the damage is very, very great," said former mayor Dave Blair.

The city received about $31,000 in private donations for its legal defense fund. But after paying legal fees, only about $5,000 remains.

The Pennsylvania town of Hazleton has fared better, receiving $266,000 from thousands of donors around the country to defend its ordinance banning landlords from renting to illegal immigrants. No taxpayer money is being spent on legal fees or other lawsuit-related costs.

Donations included $10,000 from Geno's Steaks owner Joey Vento, whose Philadelphia eatery has signs reading "This Is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING 'SPEAK ENGLISH'."

The lawsuit by opponents of the Hazleton measure claims the ordinance violates residents constitutional rights, runs afoul of state and federal fair housing laws and encroaches on the federal government's authority to oversee immigration.

Enforcement of the Hazleton ordinance was barred pending the outcome of a trial on the lawsuit, which started in March. A federal judge is expected to rule later this year.

Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta said the city's attorney fees are expected to be substantial. And if the city loses, he said it could be ordered to pay as much as $2 million in legal costs incurred by opponents of the ordinance. Still, he promised that Hazleton will stand its ground.

"I'm sure the ACLU, part of their goal would be to run the city out of money in hopes that we would stop fighting, but I will raise whatever I have to," Barletta said. The California city of Escondido abandoned an ordinance that would punish landlords who rent to illegal immigrants after it discovered the legal bills could top $1 million. By the time the city council agreed in December to settle a lawsuit challenging the ordinance, Escondido had spent $200,000, said spokeswoman Joyce Masterson.

Councilman O'Hare is determined to keep the Farmers Branch ordinance from meeting a similar fate. His city has the money to fight the suits, he said, and its insurance policy should cover the costs of two of the suits.

"Any thought that they can spend us into giving up or quitting is wrong," O'Hare said.