Over the weekend, Gov. Kathy Hochul ushered in greater protections for undocumented immgirants, signing legislation that makes threatening to report immigration status punishable by imprisonment.
In theory, the law shields undocumented tenants from landlords who might use the threat of deportation against them, for example, to warn tenants against filing complaints or fighting eviction.
Tenant advocates and attorneys doubt that the protections, while well-intentioned, will make much difference for undocumented renters.
To make use of the law, tenants would need to report their landlord’s immigration-related harassment. Hotlines already exist to field complaints. But many undocumented residents are reluctant to lodge one, fearing it would come back to haunt them.
“A lot of undocumented tenants are very scared to come forward with anything,” said Andrea Shapiro, program manager at tenant group the Met Council on Housing.
Instead, many endure the harassment.
Shapiro said landlords sometimes make indirect threats by asking renters questions about their immigration status or implying that they know a tenant is undocumented. The new law does not explicitly disallow that.
During the pandemic, some owners used tenants’ actual or perceived immigration status to work around the eviction moratorium, filing false notices or ignoring hardship declarations to get tenants before a judge. Others refused to fill out their side of the emergency rental assistance application.
A city law that extends similar protections offers a clue about how likely undocumented folks are to use the state’s new statute to report harassment. The city’s Human Rights Law shields undocumented renters from discrimination by property owners, managers and brokers, including “eviction based on immigration status or national origin,” and from less overt threats, so long as tenants comply with local housing law.
Housing attorney Stephanie Rudolph said some tenants have used the law to bring cases against landlords who held immigration status over a renters’ head to deny them housing. Theoretically, they could also use the law to bring a suit.
“My guess is it’s not that common just because people are afraid,” she said. “But it’s not unheard of, either.”
Still, a problem with the city law, and one that could stunt the impact of the state’s, is that many undocumented tenants do not know that protections exist, either because of language barriers or lack of education around immigrant rights.
“A lot of people might know that certain harassment is wrong and suspect it’s not legal, but still have a great deal of fear,” Rudolph said. “Other people don’t want to talk about it because they’re imperiled by the threat.”
Still, Shapiro and Rudolph agreed that more protection is better than less, and that expanding the city’s shield statewide is progress.
“But it doesn’t alleviate the likely fear and consequence of that leverage point for landlords,” said Rudolph.