Latino civil rights group MALDEF sues Illinois landlord who threatened tenants with deportation

Latino civil rights group MALDEF sues Illinois landlord who threatened tenants with deportation

Illinois couple Maria Maltos Escutia and Gabriel Valdez Garcia entered a verbal agreement to rent a basement apartment in 2017, agreeing to pay Marco Antonio Contreras and Denise Contreras $600 a month. This verbal agreement continued on for several years until early 2020, when the Contreras’ asked for a signed contract, to which Maltos Escutia and Valdez Garcia agreed.

But within months, the landlords raised the rent by $200, which Maltos Escutia and Valdez Garcia could not afford. Then, without written notification, they were informed they had to vacate the unit by August. The couple planned to leave before then, but then in late June, the landlords demanded the couple pay July’s rent.

“When the couple offered to pay a prorated amount since they were planning to move out, Marcos Contreras threatened to report the couple to federal immigration officials, in violation of Illinois state law,” said the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). The Latino civil rights group is now suing on behalf of the tenants.

RELATED STORY: Landlords emboldened by Trump are threatening immigrant tenants with eviction and rent increases

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MALDEF said this is the second time it has sued a landlord under the Immigrant Tenant Protection Act (ITPA), “a 2019 Illinois law that bans landlords from using an individual’s immigration status to discriminate or harass a tenant.” California passed a similar law under former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017, as the state was seeing a surge in tenant harassment by landlords emboldened by the anti-immigrant policies of the previous administration.

“Rent increases, evictions up in immigrant communities under Trump, housing lawyers say,” The Sacramento Bee reported at the time. In one instance, a landlord also threatened to report a housing attorney who had come to the aid of an immigrant tenant who’d received an illegal eviction order.  “I believe the State Bar of California will be interested (in) my complaint, under the new leadership of our president,” a landlord boldly warned the housing attorney in a text, the report said.

Daily Kos’ Marissa Higgins wrote in 2019 that a judge ordered one New York City landlord to pay $17,000 to an undocumented immigrant tenant she harassed. “They can deport you,” Dianna Lysius told Holly Ondaan in texts. “Attorneys involved in the case believe this is the first instance in which a person was fined for making ICE-related threats and could be used in establishing precedent,” Higgins wrote at the time. 

Data showed there was also a disturbing spike in abusers weaponizing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) against their victims. According to the Immigrant Defense Project’s ICE Out of Courts Coalition, “Reports of alleged abusers threatening to call ICE to stop their victims from seeking help has skyrocketed by 78.6% since early 2017.”

“Landlords should never be allowed to exploit their tenants’ immigration status to secure an unfair and coercive advantage in the housing rental arrangement,” said MALDEF President Thomas A. Saenz. “Fortunately, the ITPA prohibits this conduct and should lead to all Illinois landlords abandoning tactics such as threatening to contact ICE.” Susana Sandoval Vargas, MALDEF Staff Attorney, said “[i]t is important that landlords stop weaponizing tenants’ perceived immigration status in landlord-tenant disputes.”

MALDEF helped secure the historic 1982 Supreme Court victory that guarantees a public school education for all children regardless of immigration status. Following the right-wing Supreme Court’s draft forced decision, the future of that ruling is now uncertain, after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott threatened to challenge the ruling.

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