St. Louis suburb's immigration law upheld

ST. LOUIS | A federal appeals panel has upheld a suburban St. Louis town's ordinance prohibiting the hiring of illegal immigrants, a case that some observers believe could have national implications.

A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday unanimously affirmed a lower court's ruling in favor of the city of Valley Park.

Similar cases have been heard around the country. Last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an Arizona state law that also bars the hiring of illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia is weighing a similar case out of Hazleton, Pa.

“The Valley Park case is being cited around the country,” said Kris Kobach, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor who represented Valley Park and also argued on behalf of the Hazleton law. “This decision has nationwide consequences.”

The Missouri case was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Jacqueline Gray, a Valley Park landlord who hires people for odd jobs and maintenance.

ACLU lawyer Omar Jadwat in New York said it was too early to say what future legal steps might be taken. He didn't view the ruling as a defining one on illegal immigration issues. He said Valley Park had amended its own law in recent years, in part due to legal action.

“In the course of litigation, Valley Park cut back on anti-immigration laws it had enacted,” he said. Jadwat said the ruling largely addressed procedural questions. “I don't think this ruling shifts the balance on these issues.”

Valley Park, a working-class community of 6,500 in southwest St. Louis County, has been involved in court battles since the city passed the immigration law in 2006. A St. Louis County judge struck down the original ordinance as well as a revised one.

Then, in 2007, the city revised the law again, this time to repeal a provision prohibiting renting to illegal aliens, but keeping the provision prohibiting hiring them. The ordinance sets out a procedure for lodging complaints, and requires those applying for a business license to sign an affidavit stating that they do not knowingly employ unlawful workers.

City Attorney Eric Martin said the town has not yet enforced the law or accepted complaints, largely because officials wanted to make sure code enforcers were properly trained. However, because Missouri adopted its own illegal immigrant law last year, Martin said the state law includes provisions similar enough that the city may never need to enforce its ordinance.

The original law was spearheaded by former Mayor Jeffery Whitteaker, who was defeated in a re-election bid last year.

Mayor Grant Young, who succeeded Whitteaker, said Valley Park spent about $250,000 in recent years on legal fees related to the immigration law.

“I don't support illegal immigration, but as a fiscal conservative, I would have chosen a different path,” Young said. He said he hoped “we can finally turn the page on a controversial issue.”

Young had previously said Valley Park, which was 89 percent white in the 2000 Census, “has to become multiracial and multiethnic.”

The 2000 Census showed the town's Hispanic population was 2.3 percent.

Alderwoman Stephanie Reynolds wondered why so much effort and money was spent on a law that may never be enforced.

“Pretty much a lot of money wasted,” Reynolds said.

Kobach disagreed. Regardless of whether the city is enforcing the law, publicity about it appears to be deterring businesses from hiring illegal immigrants in Valley Park, he said.

“The message has gone out,” Kobach said. “People who are inclined to violate the law by hiring illegal aliens are inclined to go elsewhere. The law is in place and appears to be having the desired affect.”