updated 10/12/2007 4:54:45 PM ET 2007-10-12T20:54:45

California has become the first state to prohibit landlords from asking tenants about their immigration status, drawing sighs of relief from property owners who were concerned they might have to be “de-facto immigration cops.”

The law signed this week by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger prevents cities from punishing landlords who rent to illegal immigrants. More than 90 communities nationwide have tried to curb illegal immigration by proposing crackdowns on property owners who rent to them or businesses that employ them, among other measures.

Supporters of tighter immigration control said the California law would prevent local governments from acting on an issue where the federal government has failed.

“It’s clear that Washington, D.C., doesn’t want to deal with this problem,” said Rick Oltman of Californians for Population Stabilization. “You have cities that want to deal with the problem and this bill would stop them.”

'Salt to the wound'
California’s law “certainly adds salt to the wound for mayors who are trying to protect their legal residents and their budgets from the burden of illegal immigration,” said Mayor Lou Barletta of Hazleton, Pa., which passed an ordinance last year penalizing landlords and employers who do business with illegal immigrants. The rule was struck down in federal court as unconstitutional. The city is appealing.

California, which has more immigrants than any other state, is home to as many as 2.8 million illegal immigrants, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Landlords were concerned that, without the law, they could be forced to take on the cost and liability of enforcing federal immigration laws.

“We have huge anti-discrimination obligations,” said Nancy Ahlswede, executive director of the Apartment Association, California Southern Cities. “We understand the frustration, but that burden shouldn’t be placed on landlords.”

If the law had failed, she said, property owners were worried they might have to serve essentially as immigration agents, policing their properties for illegal tenants.

Groups argued for privacy
Immigrant-advocacy organizations argued that any rule requiring landlords to pry into their tenants’ immigration status would infringe on privacy and the federal government’s authority.

“If the federal government wants to go after someone, they can do that, but a city can’t,” said Kristina Campbell, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, who helped sue Escondido, Calif., after it passed an ordinance punishing landlords who rent to undocumented immigrants.

The lawsuit was later settled out of court, city officials said.

Advocates also said any proposition that orders landlords not trained in immigration law to determine a tenant’s immigration status could risk discrimination.

A property owner trying to hazard a guess about someone’s immigration status could rely on that person’s appearance or accent, said Reshma Shamasunder, director of the California Immigrant Policy Center.

Greg McConnell, who has two rental properties and helped organize landlords in Berkeley to support the bill, said he’s just glad to be out of the “bitter and inflammatory” immigration debate.

“It’s not a question of where landlords stand on the immigration issue. It’s a question of who’s to enforce those laws,” he said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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