By The Stiletto (bio)

San Francisco and Hazleton, PA are fighting federal pre-emption in court on, respectively, healthcare coverage and illegal immigration.

Vince Chhabria, a deputy city attorney with the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office is in federal court arguing that a new law that mandates healthcare coverage for some 82,000 uninsured residents does not violate the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (Erisa), which administers employee benefits plans. Noting that only Congress can compel employers to change their employee benefits plans, The Recorder reports:

San Francisco’s law, known as the Health Care Security Ordinance, applies to medium- and large-size businesses. If the law passes muster in the courts, companies with 20 or more employees would have to spend $1.17 or $1.76 for each hour employees work, depending on the company’s size.

To meet those spending minimums, employers who don’t already offer insurance could set up their own health benefits program, or direct employees to enroll in a new city program and make insurance payments on their behalf. The city argues the benefits it provides will be cheaper than anything available on the private market.

A food industry trade group, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, sued in November to stop the law from taking effect. In court papers, the group says the San Francisco law is pre-empted by a 1974 federal employee benefits statute – the same one used to knock down the health care laws in Maryland [4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals] and Suffolk County, NY [U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York].

It remains to be seen whether U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White hands down a precedent-setting ruling in the matter, but U.S. District Judge James Munley has struck down Hazleton’s Illegal Immigration Relief Act, which would have levied fines on landlords renting to illegal aliens and yanked business permits from companies hiring them.

Hazleton’s Republican mayor, Lou Barletta, spearheaded the adoption of these tough laws, contending that crime, drugs and gang activity associated with illegal immigrants has overwhelmed police, schools and hospitals and destroyed the quality of life in his town.

The ACLU, Hispanic groups and illegal immigrants sued to obtain a restraining order to delay enforcement of the measures, which Munley granted. In this ruling, Munley said only the federal government can regulate immigration, and that Hazleton’s ordinances violated state and federal housing law and deprived illegal aliens of their constitutional rights to equal protection and due process. The Associated Press reports:

“Whatever frustrations … the city of Hazleton may feel about the current state of federal immigration enforcement, the nature of the political system in the United States prohibits the city from enacting ordinances that disrupt a carefully drawn federal statutory scheme,” Munley wrote in a 206-page opinion.

“Even if federal law did not conflict with Hazleton’s measures, the city could not enact an ordinance that violates rights the Constitution guarantees to every person in the United States, whether legal resident or not,” he added.

Federal mandates and high court rulings compel state and local governments to provide a public school education and other public benefits to illegal aliens and their children – but does not provide funding or otherwise reimburse them for these expenditures.

For this reason, Northern VA’s Prince William County is considering curtailing government services provided to illegal immigrants, such as access to public schools – though it’s doubtful such a move will succeed, because of a 1982 Supreme Court ruling (Plyler v. Doe) that established the right of children to attend public schools regardless of their citizenship status. Reports The Washington Post:

It is unknown how many such students are in the county. The school system is prohibited from asking students about their immigration status. …

School Board member Grant Lattin (Occoquan) said the board … was dealing with crowding issues and seeking ways to save.

“Board members asked the question, ‘Just who are we required to provide services to? Can we provide services to citizens and noncitizens?’ ” Lattin said. “I have grave concerns about the impact that undocumented aliens have on the services, including school services, and I wonder what can be done about it.”

More than 90 communities across the U.S. have either adopted or are considering Hazleton-like laws, and this ruling will embolden opponents of any measures to curb illegal immigration to fight such local initiatives in court.

Editorial Note: Barletta has vowed to go all the way to the Supreme Court to defend the Illegal Immigration Relief Act. You can help fund the good fight by contributing to Small Town Defenders, which Hazleton has set up to collect private donations.