U.S. District Judge James Munley found fault with just about every aspect of Hazleton's Illegal Immigration Relief Act, which he struck down Thursday in a 206-page opinion that declared states and municipalities have no business trying to stem illegal immigration.
Munley's decision applies only to Hazleton, but legal experts say it could lead to similar rulings elsewhere.
The decision is a road map for judges "inclined to find in favor of immigrant advocates," said Peter Spiro, who teaches immigration law at Temple University.
"This is a big victory for immigrants rights advocates ... in the first major case addressing one of these ordinances," he said. "They could hardly have asked for more."
Hazleton sought to impose fines on landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and deny business permits to companies that give them jobs. Another measure would have required tenants to register with City Hall and pay for a rental permit.
Hazleton's Republican mayor started pushing for the strict laws last summer after two illegal immigrants were charged in a fatal shooting. Mayor Lou Barletta argued that illegal immigrants brought drugs, crime and gangs to the city of more than 30,000, overwhelming police and schools.
"When you start seeing serious crimes being committed, very violent crimes being committed and time and time again those involved are illegal aliens, it doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that you're experiencing a problem here that you've never had before, nor do you have the resources to deal with it," Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta told 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft in November.
More than 90 communities across the United States have considered or approved measures similar to Hazleton's. But Munley said such laws usurp the federal government's exclusive power to regulate immigration and deprive residents of their constitutional right to due process.
"Even if federal law did not conflict with Hazleton's measures, the city could not enact an ordinance that violates rights the Constitution guarantees to every person in the United States, whether legal resident or not," Munley wrote.
Munley also wrote that Hazleton's law was at odds with current federal immigration policy, which he said avoids "excessive enforcement" against illegal immigrants so as not to jeopardize foreign relations. Hazleton, he said, failed to consider "the implications of the ordinances on foreign policy."
Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta pushed for the strict laws last summer after two illegal immigrants were charged in a fatal shooting. The Republican mayor argued that illegal immigrants brought drugs, crime and gangs to the city of more than 30,000, overwhelming police and schools.
Hispanic groups and illegal immigrants in Hazleton sued, denouncing the measures as racist and divisive.
Hazleton's act was copied by dozens of municipalities around the country that believe the federal government has not done enough to stop illegal immigration.
Because the Hazleton ordinance was the first to go to trial, Munley's opinion will almost certainly be studied by judges determining the validity of similar measures, experts said. A federal judge in Texas, for instance, is considering a legal challenge to a law in the Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch that prohibits apartment rentals to illegal immigrants.
"Any judge is going to have to look at what Judge Munley has written and take it into consideration in deciding how they want to rule," said Jan Ting, a former federal immigration official and Temple University law professor. "A judge would be negligent" not to, he added.
Hazleton plans to appeal Munley's decision to the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals within 30 days. The city's lawyer, Kris Kobach, has said Munley ignored Supreme Court precedent and existing federal law.
In defending the ordinance, Kobach relied heavily on a 1976 Supreme Court decision in which the high court upheld a California law prohibiting businesses from employing illegal immigrants.
But Munley said the Supreme Court's ruling in that case was no longer applicable, because a decade later Congress enacted sweeping legislation that made it unlawful for businesses to employ illegal immigrants — and expressly pre-empted states and localities from imposing their own civil or criminal penalties.
Angelo Paparelli, president of the Academy of Business Immigration Lawyers and an opponent of the Hazleton law, predicted that courts will use Munley's decision as a template. "He rebutted and threw down as wrongheaded every legal argument the city made," he said.
But Ting, who is critical of Munley's ruling, said its value to other judges would be diminished if an appeals court reverses it. "I don't think anyone can foresee with certainty what the ultimate outcome will be," Ting said. "I think we have miles to go before we sleep on this one."
Even Spiro, who opposes the Hazleton law, said Munley's decision is vulnerable because it is an unsettled area of the law. "The court ruled that localities such as Hazleton simply can't regulate immigration policy. It's not as clear as the district court made it out to be," he said.