In a unanimous ruling, the Court of Final Appeal sided with the government's position that tight restrictions on domestic helpers mean they don't have the same status as other foreign residents, who can apply to settle permanently after seven years. Lawyers for the two had argued that an immigration provision barring domestic workers from permanent residency was unconstitutional.
The court also rejected the government's request for Beijing to have the final say in the matter, which had sparked fears of interference by China's central government in the semiautonomous region. Some saw the request as a backhanded attempt by the government to get Beijing to halt the flow of another group of unwanted migrants—children of mainland Chinese parents—while putting the city's prized judicial independence at risk.
In the ruling, Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma wrote that foreign domestic helpers "are told from the outset that admission is not for the purposes of settlement and that dependents cannot be brought to reside in Hong Kong."
The decision means Evangeline Banao Vallejos and Daniel Domingo cannot apply for permanent residence even though Vallejos has worked in Hong Kong since 1986 and Domingo since 1985. Neither appeared at court.
"We are very disappointed," said Mark Daly, a lawyer for the pair.
He said Vallejos was speechless after learning about the decision.
"While we respect the judgment, we disagree with it," Daly said.
He added that the ruling is "not a good reflection of the values we should be teaching youngsters and people in our society."
The case has split the city, home to nearly 300,000 maids from Southeast Asian countries. The vast majority are from Indonesia and the Philippines. Some argue that barring maids from applying for residency amounts to ethnic discrimination. But other groups have raised fears that the case would result in a massive influx of maids' family members arriving in Hong Kong, straining the densely populated city's social services, health and education systems. Supporters of the maids, who earn at least $500 a month and get room and board, say those fears are overblown.
Members of an activist group briefly chanted "We are workers, not slaves" and others slogans on the courthouse's front steps after the ruling was released.
"Today is a very sad day for migrant workers in Hong Kong," said Eman Villanueva, secretary-general of United Filipinos in Hong Kong. "With the court's ruling today, it gave its judicial seal to unfair treatment and the social exclusion of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong."
Hong Kong is a former British colony that has been a special administrative region of China since 1997 and permanent residency is the closest thing it has to citizenship.
Along with the foreign maids, Hong Kong is also home to tens of thousands of expatriates working in professions like banking, accounting or teaching. They can apply after seven years for permanent residence, which allows them to vote and work without needing a visa.
Government figures cited by a lower court in this case said an estimated 117,000 foreign maids had been in Hong Kong for that length of time as of 2010.
In rejecting the maids' application, the court said it did not need to grant a controversial government request for Beijing to reinterpret residency rights outlined in the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
Such a reinterpretation could have also taken away the right to residency from children born in the city to mainland Chinese parents, which they were granted in an earlier ruling.
That's made Hong Kong a popular place for mainland Chinese to give birth but it's also added to growing anger from residents upset about a growing influx of mainlanders, including pregnant women crossing the border to give births, straining local hospitals. Some in Hong Kong have dubbed mainland visitors "locusts," accusing them of hogging all the baby formula sold in stores and pushing up property prices through their voracious buying of apartments.
Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok said the government "welcomes" the decision and is studying the court's judgment while it considers further options it can take regarding the children, known as "double negatives" because neither parent is from Hong Kong.
"In the meantime, the government will continue to adopt robust administrative measures" to enforce a policy of not allowing any mainlanders to give birth in private hospitals, Lai told reporters.
The request had raised fears about Beijing interfering in Hong Kong, which prides itself on having a strong rule of law with a separate legal system from mainland China and under the Basic Law is granted a high degree of autonomy until 2047.
Hong Kong legal judgments: http://legalref.judiciary.gov.hk
Follow Kelvin Chan at twitter.com/chanman