CHICAGO – A Latino civil rights organization is suing a Cook County couple who reported a tenant to immigration officials after a rent dispute because he requested a repair in his apartment, according to a lawsuit filed in state court today.

MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) filed the suit on behalf of Jose E. Zavala-Padilla, an immigrant who rented an apartment in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, Illinois. He spent about a month in detention after his landlords reported him to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Immigration (ICE) in retaliation for a disagreement about repairs to his apartment.

The suit is the first brought 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.

“Abuse of immigrant tenants through threats of reports to ICE is a widespread problem that must end,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel.  “Fortunately, Illinois law now clearly prohibits this type of abuse; all property owners should understand the costs and consequences of making such exploitative threats.”

In 2019, Zavala-Padilla rented a basement apartment from Elisa and Margarito Alvarez for $600 a month. The couple owned the apartment building.

In February 2020, Zavala-Padilla asked the Alvarezes to fix a leak that was damaging the bathroom floor and making the unit uninhabitable. The landlords refused but said he was free to fix the sink at his own cost. Zavala-Padilla asked the Alvarezes for additional time to pay the March 2020 rent. Zavala-Padilla explained he had been unable to work because he was sick and requested a few more days to pay. A few days later, Zavala-Padilla only paid $500, deducting the cost of replacing the bathroom sink.

Shortly after, the landlords showed up and demanded Zavala-Padilla pay the balance for the March rent immediately. The Alvarezes threatened to report Zavala-Padilla to immigration authorities, prompting Zavala-Padilla to tell the couple he would be moving out in two weeks, and the Alvarezes agreed. A few days later Zavala-Padilla returned home to find the couple had locked him out of his unit without ever serving him a notice of eviction. In response, Zavala-Padilla called Cicero police who helped him re-enter his apartment. Two days later, immigration officials showed up at the apartment and detained Zavala-Padilla. While in ICE custody, Zavala-Padilla learned that his landlords had reported him.

During the time Zavala-Padilla was detained by ICE, the landlords threw away his possessions and emptied his wallet, Zavala-Padilla’s sister said.

“MALDEF helped pass ITPA to prevent this exact type of xenophobic behavior. Everyone should have a right to a safe home, especially during these difficult times,” Susana Sandoval Vargas, Staff Attorney, MALDEF. “Landlords need to stop using tenants’ perceived immigration status as an intimidation tool to rob individuals, like Zavala-Padilla, of a safe place to call home.”

Besides the ITPA, the lawsuit claims the Alvarezes violated state laws prohibiting landlords from evicting tenants without proper notice or due process. Attorneys also argue that landlords violated trespassing and other state laws by taking Zavala-Padilla’s possessions and locking him out. Additionally, the lawsuit claims that the landlords failed to maintain the apartment Zavala-Padilla rented in violation of Cicero municipal codes.

The lawsuit seeks a $2,000 fine for each ITPA violation, financial reimbursement for Zavala-Padilla’s lost property, as well as damages for violating his privacy by calling ICE and for wrongfully evicting him.

Illinois is the second state in the U.S. to enact legislation protecting immigrant tenants’ rights. MALDEF was instrumental in getting the Illinois tenant law passed in 2019. California passed an immigrant tenant law in 2017.

Read the complaint HERE.