U.S. Fifth Circuit - The FindLaw 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Injunction of TX Illegal Immigrant Harboring Law Overturned

It was as close to a win-win decision as they get, especially considering that both sides lost.

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed an injunction landlords had obtained against enforcement of an anti-harboring statute, then dismissed their case and said they were not subject to prosecution under the law. Because the plaintiffs lacked standing, the court could have side-stepped the harboring issue. But instead, the court laid down the law.

"Because there is no reasonable interpretation by which merely renting housing or providing social services to an illegal alien constitutes 'harboring ... that person from detection,' we reverse the injunction and render a judgment of dismissal for want of jurisdiction," the court said.

Harboring Statute

The case arose after two landlords challenged the harboring law as unreasonable and unconstitutional. The law made it a third-degree felony to harbor an undocumented immigrant, punishable by two to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Acting on behalf of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, a third plaintiff also challenged the law on the same grounds. He said the organization provides free and low-cost services to refugees who bond out of immigration prisons; the landlords said they rely on rent to pay mortgages and for support, not to hide illegal immigrants.

After a trial judge granted their injunction against enforcement, Texas authorities appealed. Reviewing the statute and court records, the Sixth Circuit reversed.

The court reversed after it gleaned from the trial court record that Texas authorities would not prosecute the plaintiffs in their circumstances. Without a controversy, the court said, there was no justiciable case.

No Controversy, But

Noting its statutory interpretation was not precedential, the court went on to interpret the Texas law. They interpreted it to mean "harbor" from "detection."

"Although the definition of 'harbor' may be ambiguous in isolation, when paired with 'from detection' it requires some level of covertness well beyond merely renting or providing a place to live," Judge Jerry E. Smith wrote for the court.

In sum, the court said, the plaintiffs could not demonstrate a credible threat of prosecution "because they had not hampered authorities from finding any of the illegal aliens they rent to or serve, nor had they taken steps to help the aliens evade detection by the authorities."

Texas authorites took the decision as a win, saying the court lifted the injunction and upheld their ability to prosecute illegal harboring. On the other hand, Nina Perales with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund said the ruling was "a positive result."

"The Fifth Circuit provided us with a narrow definition of harboring that will prevent Texas law enforcement officers from arresting humanitarian workers and landlords for simply providing shelter and conducting business with undocumented immigrants," she said.

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