Ahrens: Keep Cherokee immigration ordinance on hold

Cherokee County’s top elected official said this week he supports keeping on hold a county ordinance that would punish landlords who rent to illegal immigrants.

Cherokee Board of Commissioners Chairman Buzz Ahrens disclosed his position after a federal appeals court issued a decision Monday that blocks a similar law in Texas.

Attorneys who have sued to block Cherokee’s statute say the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling against Farmers Branch, Texas, bolsters their case. They argue Cherokee’s law is unconstitutional because it interferes with the federal government’s authority to regulate immigration.

Cherokee commissioners approved the county’s ordinance in December of 2006. The following month, the Bells Ferry Mobile Home Park, seven Mexican mobile home renters and several civil and immigrant rights groups filed suit to block the law. A federal judge placed the ordinance on hold with the consent of county officials who were seeking to avoid costly legal bills. The law has been in limbo since then.

Asked about the Farmers Branch ruling, Ahrens pointed to recent laws Georgia has enacted to crack down on illegal immigration, saying “there has been a lot of progress in Georgia” since Cherokee approved its ordinance. Ahrens began his first term on the Cherokee board in January of 2007, a month after the board approved its ordinance.

“It would seem imprudent to move forward with this, or some other ordinance, until it’s more clear what is happening at the state level,” he said in an email. “There is no compelling need to resurrect [it] at this point. Let it remain on hold.

“If and when there is need to enforce, then it must be resolved in the courtroom first. In keeping score with other jurisdictions, I am not sure that would happen anytime soon.”

Nearly 9 percent of Cherokee’s residents were born abroad, or 18,023, census records show. Of those, 6,668 are naturalized U.S. citizens and the rest are not U.S. citizens.

Cherokee’s ordinance requires landlords to keep identifying information about their tenants and make it available to county officials upon demand. It also authorizes the county to suspend business licenses for rental properties found to be housing illegal immigrants. The county could also prevent property owners from collecting rent from tenants during those suspensions.

Similarly, Farmers Branch – a suburb of Dallas – passed an ordinance seeking to block landlords from renting to illegal immigrants. On Monday, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s decision to block the ordinance, ruling it conflicts with federal law.

Omar Jadwat, supervising attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said that ruling and other recent court decisions support arguments against Cherokee’s law. In 2010, for example, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Hazleton – a small northeastern Pennsylvania city — may not enforce a law that would fine landlords who rent to illegal immigrants.

“If we ever get to the point of actually having to make arguments against the Cherokee County law, the score is now truly overwhelming against any laws of the type that Cherokee County has enacted,” said Jadwat, one of the attorneys who filed suit against Cherokee and Farmers Branch.