Volume 85, Number 6

December 2010

Coded Codes: Discriminatory Intent, Modern Political Mobilization, and Local Immigration Ordinances

Sofía D. Martos

The extent to which some local immigration ordinances are motivated by national-origin or racial discrimination is difficult to discern because our current application of the Equal Protection Clause involves a narrow understanding of the evidence of discriminatory intent. In the last decade, cities and towns have become immigration policy laboratories as a result of sharp increases in local immigrant populations, fiscal constraints, lack of comprehensive federal immigration reform, and, in some instances, a new wave of discrimination against recent immigrants. Many local governments have pursued quality of life ordinances—such as maximum occupancy, parking, and nuisance regulations—as a means to regulate immigration. Quality of life ordinances are “coded codes”—ordinances that are facially neutral but that may target particular communities. They also evade judicial review because modern courts tend to examine discriminatory intent only through official documents such as city council minutes and give short shrift to extracameral evidence that reveals the motivations of decisionmakers. Quality of life ordinances therefore expose the failure of our current equal protection doctrine to recognize the evidentiary significance of political statements and mobilization outside official city chambers. This Note argues that a more rigorous application of the Arlington Heights six-factor discriminatory intent test, as well as the inclusion of extracameral evidence illuminating political mobilization and statutory diffusion, would revive the equal protection doctrine’s ability to identify discriminatory intent.