The Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission recently brought to Attorney General Jon Bruning’s office a case involving Hispanic tenants who were asked for driver’s licenses when non-Hispanic tenants weren’t asked for the same. The tenants’ seemed to have a legitimate grievance based off the Fair Housing Act’s prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of national origin. But Bruning resentfully declined the case saying, “I’m not going to use taxpayer dollars to file lawsuits for illegal aliens.”
Meanwhile, the original sin – a landlord requesting ID on a discriminatory basis – was buried.
Bruning’s refusal to take up Hispanic tenants’ housing complaints has already cost the Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission a threatened loss of funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Lawyers from both fair housing and immigrant advocacy groups are considering suing Bruning for abusing fair housing policy. Immigration cases have historically been the sole domain of federal government, but lately some federal courts have been affording state governments their own sway over immigration control.
Last year, Bruning and Nebraska Governor David Heineman, both Republicans, tried to push legislation that would deny social service benefits to immigrants, but were denied by a committee from the unicameral legislature. Opposing immigrants collecting welfare benefits is one thing, but leaving families without housing would seem to come back and financially bite the state anyway if health, crime or other social costs are the consequences.
Navigating the legality of Bruning’s stance is mystifying. Immigrants are certainly covered by the 5th amendment (right of persons; no person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law) and the 14th amendment (equal protection; no State shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws) even if undocumented. But the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule on this as pertaining to the Fair Housing act.
Bruning argues that the 1996 welfare reform law prohibits states from providing any kind of social benefits or assistance to non-citizens. Since Bruning is refusing legal service, not actual housing – the landlord’s violation – he believes that he falls within the law. There’s still the argument that as state attorney general, he has a duty to protect based off the 14th amendment. After all, if every state attorney general applied the same logic, employers, landlords, hospitals and school administrators could discriminate against anyone who even appeared to be an immigrant (namely people who speak Spanish, have a Spanish accent or who were seen at last week’s immigration protests).
Federal courts are reluctant to intervene in matters like these, due to state prosecutorial discretion. However, there are clauses in the Fair Housing Act that say one can’t make “unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin … or discriminate … in the provision of services or facilities in connection therewith.” But it’s unknown how these clauses would be applied to a situation like this, according to fair housing lawyers.
The broader implications of this remain to be seen. There are bi-racial American citizens who will suffer as they may be mistaken for illegal immigrants. Those of low income — your typical renter — won’t be able to afford private lawyers in these cases. In states where immigration inflow is much greater, such as in the southeast, fair housing law organizations may not be able to handle an avalanche of immigration cases.
With protected discrimination comes increased house crowding and homelessness. The social costs would lead to what Bruning supposedly wants to prevent – tax payer dollars used for “illegal aliens” — even though this assumes that undocumented workers aren’t taxpayers themselves.
It would be unfair to label Bruning a racist. He’s against a court decision that allowed reinstatement for former state trooper Robert Henderson who was found to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Bruning argued, “A man who embraces racism and white supremacy shouldn’t be allowed to carry a gun and a badge.”
If Henderson doesn’t get his police job back, hopefully he won’t become a landlord.