In July 2006, Hazleton passed the Illegal Immigration Relief Act Ordinance (IIRAO). Over 100 municipalities and states subsequently passed some variation of the Hazleton law, prompting ACLU lawsuits across the country. Hazleton was the first such law passed, and the first to be challenged by a lawsuit.

Under the law, anyone hiring another person to do work – including the neighbor kid to mow the lawn – had to check immigration papers. Failure to do so would result in penalties, including a loss of operating license for businesses. Landlords similarly had to check all tenants’ immigration papers, again with loss of operating privileges for failure to comply. Tenants had to present themselves to City Hall to show papers proving immigration status.

The problem was that the law did not, and could not, precisely target immigrants based on legal status. Determining status is not always simple and there are many gray areas. The law’s effect, however, was clear. It aroused suspicion of anyone who looked or sounded foreign, especially of the rapidly growing Hispanic population. The law turned a quiet little town, rebounding from economic doldrums, into a battleground between natives and immigrants. The environment turned toxic for the local Hispanic community.

The ACLU and the ACLU-PA, joined by the law firm Cozen O’Connor and public interest group Latino Justice, sued in August 2006 claiming the law was pre-empted by federal immigration laws, failed to give parties harmed by the law procedural due process protections, violated various anti-discrimination laws and ran afoul of Pennsylvania law. A series of legal victories has blocked enforcement of the law.

In October 2006, we won an injunction blocking the law’s enforcement. After a two-week trial in 2007, a U.S. District Judge declared it unconstitutional. The Court of Appeals affirmed that decision in 2010, but the following year the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the decision and returned it to the appeals court for reconsideration in light of two decisions involving similar Arizona laws.

On July 26, 2013, the Court of Appeals affirmed its original ruling, albeit under a refined analysis, that both IIRAO’s housing and employment provisions are incompatible with federal law. Notably, the court ruled that Hazleton is “seeking to achieve its own immigration policy, one which will certainly result in unnecessary harassment of some aliens . . . whom federal officials determine should not be removed.” The Court continued, “Hazleton may not unilaterally prohibit those lacking lawful status from living within its boundaries, without regard for the Executive Branch’s enforcement and policy priorities. If every other state enacted similar legislation to overburden the lives of aliens, the immigration scheme would be turned on its head.”

Press Releases



Lucas Guttentag, Lee Gelernt, Omar C. Jadwat, Jennifer C. Chang (ACLU-Immigrants' Rights Project); Vic Walczak, Paula Knudsen, Mary Catherine Roper (ACLU of PA); Thomas Wilkinson, Jr., Linda Kaiser, Doreen Yatko Trujillo, William Taylor, Elena Park, Dougl

Date filed

July 11, 2006


Federal Court, Middle District