Debate Over Ordinance Heats Up: Hazle Twp. Passes Law

Tom Ragan, Standard-Speaker, July 12, 2006

Hazle Township supervisors voted 3-0 to pass an Illegal Immigration Relief Act during a special meeting Tuesday. The law establishes English as the official language of Hazle Township and establishes fines and penalties up to $1,000 for contracting with or leasing or renting to illegal immigrants.

Charles Pedri, solicitor for the Board of Supervisors, said it is basically the same ordinance the city of Hazleton passed on the first reading on June 15.

Dr. Agapito Lopez walked in seconds after the meeting was adjourned. He walked up to Pedri and asked if the illegal immigration ordinance was passed.

He was informed it was and immediately told Pedri, “You’re going to be sued. It is unconstitutional—every part of it.”

Lopez went on to say that if the township or any city or municipality is receiving federal money, it must provide bilingual documents and forms to the public.

The law passed by the township states that unless it is explicitly mandated by the federal government or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, all business forms and documents relating to the township will be written in English only.

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“Most of the people coming into Hazleton are from New York City and New Jersey and are documented legally. The city is booming; the population has increased. We are already one-third of the population in the city. This ordinance is an insult,” Lopez said.

“We are going to hold a peaceful protest on North Church Street near City Hall on Thursday. Six hundred are expected to join—not anything violent. We will light candles and wave the American flag en masse for one hour prior to Thursday’s council meeting,” Lopez said.

Lopez said a candlelight vigil would also be held tonight at 8 p.m. at city hall.

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The threat of a lawsuit over Mayor Louis Barletta’s proposed Illegal Immigration Relief Act has now been made formal. Late Tuesday afternoon, Barletta received a formal notice from the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York.

The letter, signed by 11 attorneys, states it is to express their “intention to challenge the act in court.”

“We believe that the act is unlawful on a number of grounds and will be invalidated by the courts,” it states.

The letter stakes out three grounds on which the organization believes the ordinance is unlawful. The first, it states, is that it “infringes on the exclusive federal power over immigration.”

“By using immigration status as a criteria to prohibit individuals from obtaining housing, using commercial or private premises, obtaining any sort of employment, or communicating with city employees in a language other than English, the act is effectively trying to regulate immigration,” it reads. “Though the City of Hazleton may not be satisfied with the job the federal government is doing in that regard, neither Hazleton nor thousands of other cities and municipalities across this country may lawfully take on that task.”

The second legally actionable grounds, the letter states, are the “impracticality of attempting to comply with the law” on the part of property owners, businesses and employers.

“Persons subject to the ordinance cannot reasonably be expected to know which acts are necessarily prohibited and which acts are permissible under the act,” the letter reads. It adds such “insurmountable obstacles to compliance” make the proposal “fundamentally unfair and thus violative” of due process.

Thirdly, the letter claims the proposal violates the First Amendment, “as it infringes upon the right to petition the government for redress of grievances, a fundamental right that lies at the core of our democracy.”

“A resident who can better communicate in a language other than English should not be prohibited from doing so with city employees when otherwise appropriate,” it states.

“We suggest also that you consider something we believe you have ignored: all persons within the United States, including those without proper documentation, are obliged to obey our laws,” the letter reads. “They also have rights under our Constitution and federal laws.”

The letter also restates the intention “to challenge this act in court is passed.”

“If such a challenge is upheld, the City of Hazleton and you as its mayor, will be subject to injunctive relief, possible monetary damages and the payment of attorney fees and costs, both for the city’s attorneys and for the attorneys who bring challenge, which can be quite substantial in a case like this.”

The letter is signed by attorneys Foster Maer, Lee Llambelis and Jackson Chin of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, New York; attorneys Laurence F. Norton, Peter Zurflieh and Shamaine Daniels, of the Community Justice Project, Harrisburg; attorneys Witold Walczak and Paula Knudsen, American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; attorney George R. Barron, Wilkes-Barre; attorney Barry Dyller, Wilkes-Barre; and attorney David Vaida, Allentown.

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