CHICAGO – A Latino civil rights organization is suing a Chicago couple who threatened to report tenants to immigration officials after a rent dispute in violation of state law, according to a lawsuit filed in state court today.

MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) filed the suit on behalf of Maria Maltos Escutia and Gabriel Valdez Garcia, tenants whose landlord threatened to call U.S.  Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on the couple in June 2020 following a rent dispute. The suit is the second brought by MALDEF 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.

“Landlords should never be allowed to exploit their tenants’ immigration status to secure an unfair and coercive advantage in the housing rental arrangement,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel.  “Fortunately, the ITPA prohibits this conduct and should lead to all Illinois landlords abandoning tactics such as threatening to contact ICE.”

In 2017, Maltos Escutia and Valdez Garcia rented a one-bedroom basement apartment from Marco Antonio Contreras and Denise Contreras. At that time, Maltos Escutia and Valdez Garcia verbally agreed to pay $600 rent – which included utilities – on the first of each month.

In February 2020, the Contrerases asked the couple to sign a contract describing the terms of the rental agreement. Maltos Escutia and Valdez Garcia were told the contract was necessary for the Contrerases to obtain a loan to buy a second house. The couple signed the contract, which changed the rent due date to the 29th of each month, and paid a $600 deposit. The contract also required the couple to pay their own utilities. Two months later, the Contrerases informed Maltos Escutia and Valdez Garcia their rent would be raised to $800 a month; a sum the couple could not afford. Despite the rental increase, the Contrerases accepted $600 per month rent from April through June 2020, according to the complaint.

In June of that year, the Contrerases told Maltos Escutia and Valdez Garcia they would have to move out of the apartment by August 2020 but did not provide written notification. Later that month, the Contrerases entered the apartment and told the couple the July rent was due on June 29 and demanded they pay. 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. The couple moved out of the apartment on July 31, 2020.

“The ITPA ensures that all tenants in Illinois, regardless of their immigration status, have meaningful access to a safe and stable home,” said, Susana Sandoval Vargas, Staff Attorney, MALDEF. “It is important that landlords stop weaponizing tenants’ perceived immigration status in landlord-tenant disputes.”

The lawsuit seeks a $2,000 fine for each ITPA violation, and financial reimbursement for the couple’s lost property.

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.