The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia said that Hazleton's Illegal Immigration Relief Act usurped the federal government's exclusive power to regulate immigration.
"It is ... not our job to sit in judgment of whether state and local frustration about federal immigration policy is warranted. We are, however, required to intervene when states and localities directly undermine the federal objectives embodied in statutes enacted by Congress," wrote Chief Judge Theodore McKee.
Appeals courts are split on whether states and municipalities have the right to enforce laws dealing with immigration. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments over a 2007 Arizona law that prohibits employers from knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.
Hazleton, a northeastern Pennsylvania city of more than 30,000, had sought to fine landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and deny business permits to companies that give them jobs. A companion measure required prospective tenants to register with City Hall and pay for a rental permit.
Mayor Lou Barletta had pushed the measures in 2006 after two illegal immigrants were charged in a fatal shooting. The Republican mayor, now mounting his third try for Congress, argued that illegal immigrants brought drugs, crime and gangs to the city of more than 30,000 and overwhelmed police, schools and hospitals.
Hispanic groups and illegal immigrants sued to overturn the measures, and a federal judge struck them down following a trial in 2007. The laws have never been enforced.
"This is a major defeat for the misguided, divisive and expensive anti-immigrant strategy that Hazleton has tried to export to the rest of the country," ACLU attorney Omar Jadwat said in a statement.
Barletta scheduled a news conference Thursday afternoon to discuss the decision.
Hazleton's act was copied by dozens of municipalities around the nation that believe the federal government hasn't done enough to stop illegal immigration.
The crux of the debate has now shifted to Arizona and its strict new law, passed this year, that's also being challenged in court; among other things, it requires police to question the immigration status of people they suspect are in the country illegally.
In the Hazleton case, the appeals court said the city's ordinances conflict with federal immigration law and thus are pre-empted. The employment provision could lead to discimination against "those perceived as foreign," the court said, while the effort to prevent illegal immigrants from living in Hazleton ignores that it is the federal governments' prerogative to decide who stays and who goes.
The city's law, for example, could force out a college student the federal government has declined to remove, or a battered spouse who could be eligible to stay in the United States under protections afforded by Congress, according to the unanimous decision.
Kris Kobach, a law professor and political candidate in Kansas who worked with Hazleton on its ordinance and represented the city at trial, said Thursday that the 3rd Circuit ignored Supreme Court precedent regarding pre-emption.
"It's going to be difficult for this opinion to stand. The court really had to stretch to find a way to agree with the ACLU," said Kobach, who also helped draft Arizona's immigration law.
Hispanic immigrants began settling in large numbers in Hazleton several years ago, lured from New York, Philadelphia and other cities by cheap housing, low crime and jobs in nearby factories and farms. The city, 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia, estimates its population increased by more than 10,000 between 2000 and 2006.