WHAT DOES THE LAW SAY?
The federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, or disability. The vast majority of undocumented alien discrimination cases involve exclusion of people who aren’t legal citizens of the U.S. The question: Is this legal?
Damned If You Do: How the FHA Applies to Undocumented Aliens
Notice that citizenship and immigration status aren’t on the list of FHA “protected classes.” In January 2003, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a memo clarifying that the FHA “does not prohibit discrimination based solely on a person’s citizenship status.” Nor does the law bar discrimination based on “immigration status or resident alien” status, the HUD memo adds. In other words, people who are in this country illegally can’t sue for discrimination under the FHA if that’s the sole reason they experience discrimination.
However, there’s more to the story. Undocumented aliens and non-U.S. citizens who get excluded may have valid grounds to sue for other forms of discrimination, including religion, race, and especially national origin. Rule: FHA protections extend to every person in the U.S., regardless of their immigration or citizenship status. Stated differently, a person doesn’t have to be a U.S. citizen to sue for discrimination.
Example: A Virginia townhouse community rejected a resident alien couple because they weren’t U.S. citizens. The couple sued, and the federal court ruled that they had a valid FHA claim for national origin discrimination. A citizenship requirement may be part of a wider scheme to exclude persons based on their national origin, the court reasoned [Espinoza v. Hillwood Square Mut. Ass'n, 522 F. Supp. 559 (E.D. Va. 1981)].
Of course, the same principles could apply to other protected classes. Thus, for example, a citizenship requirement may also constitute discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, or disability.
Refusing to rent to non-U.S. citizens may also violate other federal civil rights laws. For example, people who aren’t U.S. citizens may be permanent legal residents with “Green Cards” who enjoy nearly all the same rights as citizens to live and work in the country.
In addition to federal laws, landlords must comply with any stricter requirements under state and local fair housing laws. And immigration status is a protected class in some states and municipalities. For example, California makes it illegal to inquire into an applicant’s immigration status; New York City bans discrimination on the basis of “alienage or citizenship status.”
Federal and some states’ immigration laws make it a crime to “harbor” undocumented aliens. However, most courts have ruled that the laws don’t penalize landlords for simply renting housing to people without regard to their immigration status.
Example: In February 2017, a Texas federal appeals court ruled against two landlords who were willing to rent to persons regardless of immigration status but feared they might be prosecuted for “harboring” illegal aliens under state law. The lower court agreed and issued a temporary ban on Texas’s enforcement of the law. But the appeals court lifted the ban and dismissed the case, saying there’s a distinction between “harboring” and simply renting to an undocumented alien [Cruz v. Abbott, February 2017].
Damned If You Don’t: The Liability Risks of Not Screening Applicants’ Immigration/Citizenship Status
Here’s where things get tricky. While screening on the basis of immigration or citizenship status is problematic for conventional housing, it’s actually required for some forms of federally assisted housing. Thus, for example, landlords participating in the Section 8 program are obligated to ask and confirm that applicants and tenants are permanent U.S. citizens or hold some other lawful immigration status.
There are also states and municipalities where landlords are required to verify applicants’ immigration status or face severe penalties, including stiff fines and loss of their business license to operate.
Bottom Line: It’s crucial to consult an attorney and be aware of the fair housing requirements of your particular jurisdiction in determining your policies and protocols for screening and leasing to immigrants.
7 RULES FOR AVOIDING DISCRIMINATION AGAINST IMMIGRANTS
Once you sort out the basic legal landscape, you need to establish clear policies on leasing to undocumented aliens and train your leasing and management staff to implement them consistently. Here are the seven rules to cover in your training.
Rule #1: Ensure Nondiscriminatory Justification for Citizenship Screening
Technically, unless you live in a state or municipality that prohibits it, screening applicants’ citizenship and/or immigration status isn’t illegal; it might even be required. However, there are risks you must avoid if you adopt such a policy.
First, you need a legitimate, nondiscriminatory and documented business justification for making citizenship or immigration status a qualifying criterion. Doing it because the law requires it is one example. But also keep in mind that the vast majority of undocumented aliens in the U.S. belong to a minority racial, religious, and/or nationality group. Accordingly, stereotypes about undocumented aliens being troublemakers or not paying rent open the door to discrimination on the basis of religion, race, and national origin. Thus, for example, refusing to rent to immigrants because they “can’t keep a steady job” may be deemed a pretext for excluding certain nationalities, particularly in properties located near the Mexican border or on the West Coast where there are large numbers of Asian immigrants.
Rule #2: Apply Screening Policy Consistently
Whatever screening approach you adopt, you must apply it consistently. Just having a principled and justified policy requiring rental applicants to verify their U.S. citizenship won’t protect you if you follow it in some cases but not others. The 2003 HUD memo uses the following example to illustrate the fair housing liability risks of an inconsistent citizenship or immigration status screening policy.
Example: A person from the Middle East applies for an apartment. Because he’s from the Middle East, the landlord requires him to provide additional information and forms of identification and refuses to rent him the apartment. Later, somebody from Europe applies for an apartment at the same complex. Because the person is from Europe, the landlord rents him the apartment without making him complete additional paperwork or verify the information on the application and rents the apartment. This would be disparate treatment on the basis of national origin.
Implementation Strategy: The only way to ensure the consistency necessary for compliance is to have clearly written policies that explain why you screen for citizenship and/or immigration status along with procedures and protocols for implementing them. What you must guard against, above all, is allowing leasing staff to ask questions or make decisions about whether to screen particular applicants based on their appearance, accent, apparel, etc.
Rule #3: Ask for the Right Kind of Proof
If you do decide to screen for citizenship and/or immigration status, you need specific procedures and protocols to do it properly. You don’t have to take applicants at their word and have the right to request information enabling you to verify their status. Again, consistency is the key. If you ask one applicant for documentation, you must ask all applicants for it. You must also be careful to request the right information. Acceptable proof depends on whether you’re seeking to verify an applicant’s status as a citizen, immigrant, or nonimmigrant:
- Citizenship: Acceptable proof of U.S. citizenship includes a valid current U.S. passport, birth certificate, or certificate of naturalization;
- Legal immigrant: Proof of legal immigrant status—that is, noncitizens who have the right to permanently remain in the U.S., include a Permanent Resident Card (a.k.a., “Green Card”) and an official Social Security number;
- Legal nonimmigrants: Legal nonimmigrants are persons who are allowed to be in the U.S. on a temporary basis for specific reasons. Such applicants should have a non-U.S. passport from their native country along with a Form I-94 (a.k.a., Arrival Departure Record, or Entry Permit listing when they entered the U.S. and how long they have a right to stay). They also need a visa, such as an F-1 visa for students, unless they’re from one of the countries that has signed a visa waiver agreement with the U.S.
Rule #4: Apply Your Normal Screening Standards to Immigrants
There’s no rule requiring landlords to make special concessions for applicants based on their citizenship or immigration status. In other words, you may require verification of identity (such as a driver’s license, passport, or other form of government ID), financial and rental history, and other legitimate qualifications that you use to screen any other applicant.
It’s standard practice to ask applicants for Social Security numbers (SSNs). This is okay, especially since many screening companies require an SSN to perform tenant screening, such as credit and criminal background checks. But don’t automatically reject applicants because they don’t have SSNs. Explanation: Not having an SSN doesn’t necessarily mean the applicant is in the country illegally. Noncitizens need to get SSNs only if they want to work in the U.S. And tenant screening companies may still be able to vet their qualifications even without an SSN using alternative information, such as the applicant’s name, date of birth, and last known address.
Also, note that unauthorized immigrants may obtain drivers’ licenses in at least 16 states and the District of Columbia (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington).
Coach’s Tip: Contact an immigration attorney, the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS), or State Department if you’re unclear about documentation requirements or have questions about the documentation of legal immigration that an applicant presents to you.
Rule #5: Don’t Make Ability to Speak English a Rental Criterion
In September 2016, HUD issued guidance confirming what several courts had previously ruled—namely, that excluding applicants or tenants based on their limited English proficiency (LEP) violates the FHA. Explanation: Statistically, most LEP people come from a country other than the U.S. Thus, disqualifying people because they’re LEP has the effect of discriminating on the basis of national origin (and, in some cases, race and/or religion). Discriminatory practices to avoid include:
- Imposing an English-speaking language-related requirement on people of certain races or nationalities;
- Posting ads that contain blanket statements, such as “all tenants must speak English”; or
- Immediately turning away applicants because they’re not fluent in English.
Example: In 2013, HUD ordered a Virginia property management company to pay $82,500 to settle allegations of not letting a Hispanic woman apply for an apartment. According to the complaint, the company refused to give her a rental application because she didn’t speak fluent English even though she brought along a bilingual person to act as translator. HUD investigators also found that the company actually had a written policy requiring all prospects to be able to communicate with management in English without help from others [Travsiňa v. Virginia Realty Company of Tidewater, Inc., FHEO Case Numbers 03-11-0424-8].
Strategic Pointer: It’s imperative to ensure that leasing, management, and other staff remain calm, patient, poised, and professional at all times when dealing with LEP people. Giving in to frustration, even if it’s just a momentary and isolated lapse, may result in comments and actions that serve as Exhibit A in an intentional discrimination case against you.
Example: In 2017, the owner and manager of a California community had to shell out $20,000 to settle claims of national origin discrimination against Latino tenants. The turning point came when a local fair housing group joined the case bringing along evidence showing that the manager repeatedly made statements about not liking having Latino tenants at the community because they didn’t speak English.
For more guidance on this topic, see the Coach’s July 2021 issue, How to Avoid Discriminating Against People with Limited English Proficiency.
Rule #6: Don’t Use Tenant’s Immigration Status as a Bargaining Chip
Citizenship and immigration status liability issues can arise not only during the leasing process but also in the context of dealing with current tenants. One common example is seeking to use that status to extort a rental or other concession from the tenant. In 2012, HUD issued guidance (in the form of FAQs) clarifying that it’s “illegal to coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with a person’s exercise or enjoyment of” FHA rights. “This includes threats to report a person to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)” to get them to move out or accept unfavorable treatment, or in retaliation for reporting housing discrimination to HUD.
Example: A married couple sued their landlord for threatening to report them to federal immigration authorities if they didn’t move out within a matter of days. They also claimed the landlord threatened to report their attorney to the California Bar for illegally advocating on behalf of tenants it perceived to be undocumented. In April 2020, the landlord agreed to pay $250,000 in damages and attorney’s fees to resolve the allegations of national origin discrimination [DFEH settlement announcement, April 22, 2020].
Rule #7: Protect Immigrant Tenants from Harassment
Immigrant tenants may become a target for harassment, intimidation, and abuse by property staff and neighboring tenants. Regrettably, the emergence of immigration as a divisive political issue in recent years has made such behavior a more widespread problem in the context of not only rental housing but many other aspects of social activity. And to the extent it’s typically based on a tenant’s national origin, race, or religion, landlords that engage in or allow others to engage in such harassment are at risk of liability for interfering with tenants’ use and enjoyment of the property they lease.
Strategic Pointer: Preventing harassment is the bare minimum. Achieving true compliance requires a shift in culture, one in which nationality, racial, and religious differences are not only tolerated but appreciated and respected, if not actively embraced. Staff training should strongly emphasize professionalism and the need to respect the diverse ethnic and cultural differences among prospects, applicants, and tenants.
To accomplish this requires cultural sensitivity and awareness of how well intentioned and seemingly innocent acts and statements may be considered offensive to persons of different national, ethnic, or religious backgrounds.
Example: Training of maintenance and other staffers who may enter into a tenant’s apartment should emphasize that removing one’s shoes before entering another person’s home is an essential protocol of respect in some cultures.
Also train staff to avoid asking people about their accents or where they come from. While such questions might be the product of genuine curiosity or desire to engage on a personal level, they may also be construed as a form of illegal inquiry, especially if they’re accompanied by clumsy or insensitive remarks.
Example: In an attempt to make casual conversation, a real estate broker married to a Brazilian woman asked the wife of a married couple where she was from. What the broker didn’t know was that the wife, who was from Venezuela, felt as if she had just been denied a rental at another property because of her national origin. “Here we go again,” she thought when the broker asked the question. She was convinced that they had just lost a rental opportunity because of her national origin and that it was happening again. The couple filed a discrimination complaint. Result: The broker was found liable for discrimination and ordered to pay $76,500. The Massachusetts appeals court upheld the ruling—although it did reduce the damages [Linder v. Boston Fair Housing Commission, February 2014].