September 19, 2008

Farmers Branch and rule opponents offer agreement

By ANABELLE GARAY / Associated Press

Opponents of a Dallas suburb's latest attempt to oust illegal immigrants and the city of Farmers Branch have agreed to extend an order halting enforcement of a controversial rental housing rule.

Attorneys for Farmers Branch and lawyers representing a group of apartment operators and a former council member suing the city sent a letter Friday to the federal judge in the case. In it, they propose to fast-track the case and agree to extend by 30 days a temporary restraining order halting the city from requiring home and apartment tenants to seek a rental license.

City officials had wanted to check the names of rental license applicants who aren't U.S. citizens against a federal database. Farmers Branch planned to revoke the rental license of those who couldn't prove they lived legally in the country and penalize landlords who rented to tenants who didn't have a current license.

But U.S. District Judge Jane J. Boyle stopped the rule from being enforced last week by granting a temporary restraining order. The judge also scheduled a hearing to consider requests for the preliminary injunction for Monday.

"It does signal a recognition on their part that it was unlikely ... that there would be a different result come Monday," Bill Brewer, who represents opponents of the ordinance, said of the agreement.

Both parties ask for a trial to begin Dec. 8 or soon after if one is necessary, according to the letter sent by Bickel & Brewer Storefront, the law firm that represents the opponents. The letter was signed by an attorney representing Farmers Branch.

Call to attorneys for the city were not immediately returned Friday evening.

If the judge agrees to the proposed schedule, Farmers Branch would consent to turn the restraining order into a preliminary injunction — which would continue stopping city officials from trying to implement the rule.

Farmers Branch has battled advocacy groups for nearly two years over measures attempting to keep illegal immigrants from living in the city of about 28,000.

"It's turned out to be years. We want these issues resolved," Brewer said. "We think these types of ordinances are unconstitutional."

The original ordinance approved in Farmers Branch was met by lawsuits and protests before it was repealed and replaced by a redrafted one. The second attempt was challenged in court as well, with a federal judge eventually ruling it unconstitutional. That ruling triggered a 15-day countdown to enforcement of the latest ordinance, which is now hung up in court as well.

Latino advocates and a civil liberties group also are suing Farmers Branch over the rule. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants' Rights Project sent a separate letter proposing a different schedule that would bring the case to trial in March if necessary.

Even before the temporary injunction was issued, Farmers Branch did not have permission from the federal government to access the database it proposed using. The city applied earlier this month to use the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, but U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had not yet responded. An attorney for the city has said the temporary restraining order issued last week will keep USCIS from considering Farmers Branch's application.

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