Michael Powell and Michelle García, Washington Post, August 22, 2006
Hazleton, Pa.—An immigrant’s grandson, Louis J. Barletta, the mayor of this once-sleepy hill city, leans forward behind the desk in his corner office and with an easy smile confides his goal.
Barletta wants to make Hazleton “the toughest place on illegal immigrants in America.”
“What I’m doing here is protecting the legal taxpayer of any race,” said the dapper 50-year-old mayor, sweeping his hands toward the working-class city outside. “And I will get rid of the illegal people. It’s this simple: They must leave.”
The law doesn’t take effect for another month. But the Republican mayor already sees progress. “I see illegal immigrants picking up and leaving—some Mexican restaurants say business is off 75 percent,” Barletta says. “The message is out there.”
So another fire is set in the nation’s immigration wars, which as often burn most fiercely not in the urban megalopolises but in small cities and towns, where for the first time in generations immigrants have made their presence felt. In these corners, the mayors, councils and cops cobble together ambitious plans—some of which are legally dubious—to turn back illegal immigration.
‘Fear of change’
Last year two New Hampshire police chiefs began arresting illegal immigrants for trespassing, a tactic the courts tossed out. On New York’s Long Island, the Suffolk County Legislature is expected to adopt a proposal next month prohibiting contractors from hiring illegal immigrants.
Hazleton has upped that ante, and four neighboring municipalities in Pennsylvania and Riverside, N.J., already have passed identical ordinances. Seven more cities, from Allentown, Pa., to Palm Beach, Fla., are debating similar legislation.
“The ideas that these things are happening spontaneously would be mistaken,” said Devin Burghart, who tracks the immigration wars for the nonprofit Center for New Community in Chicago. “What is driving folks is fear of change and changing demographics.”
German, Italian and Japanese television crews have interviewed Barletta. He has received 9,000 favorable e-mails and has raised thousands of dollars for the city’s legal defense on a Web site called Small Town Defenders. (Two staffers from Sen. Rick Santorum’s staff prepared the site; Santorum, a Republican who is in a tight reelection race, has pushed for immigration crackdowns.)
But Barletta and the council just might walk off a legal cliff. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund have sued to block the ordinance, saying it could ensnare many who are here legally.
Even the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which organizes cities and towns to push for tighter immigration quotas and much tougher enforcement, says Hazleton’s ordinance is overly broad.
“If you are going to use the word ‘illegal immigrant,’ you have to be very careful when you are defining that term that it corresponds to federal immigration classification,” said Michael Hethmon, a lawyer with FAIR. “You can’t use terminology that mixes and matches illegal immigrants and legal immigrants.”
But the big change came half a decade back when Latinos—Puerto Ricans, who are citizens of the United States, and Dominicans—began driving west on Interstate 80, fleeing the high housing prices and cacophony of inner-city New York, Philadelphia and Providence. They found in Hazleton a city with an industrial base and cheap housing (an old Victorian could be had for $40,000 five years ago).
Latino-owned markets, restaurants and clothing stores sprang up along Wyoming Street, and property values tripled. Hazleton’s population has jumped from 23,000 to 31,000 in the past six years.
‘War on the illegals’
Barletta says it’s not that simple. He says his epiphany came in May, when several illegal immigrants walked up to a local man at 11 o’clock one night and shot him in the forehead. One suspect had four false identity papers. “It took us nine hours of overtime just to run down who he was,” Barletta said.
This, he said, came on the heels of crack dealing on playgrounds and pit bulls lunging at cops.
“I lay in bed and thought: I’ve lost my city,” he recalls. “I love the new legal immigrants; they want their kids to be safe just like I do. I had to declare war on the illegals.”
In truth, the crime wave is hard to measure. Crime is up 10 percent, but the population has risen just as fast. Violent crime has jumped more sharply, but on a small statistical base. Barletta insists there’s no whiff of racial antagonism. “This isn’t racial, because ‘illegal’ and ‘legal’ don’t have a race,” he says.
It’s not hard, however, to discern a note of racial grievance. Many whites who attended the council vote serenaded Latino opponents with chants of “Hit the road, Jack!” A prominent Hispanic leader said Hazleton had become a “Nazi city.”
But it’s a complicated tapestry. To walk Sixth Street, near the ridge line, is to hear white old-timers warn about the gang graffiti and drug dealing on playgrounds, and then listen as Latino homeowners echo those complaints. A Puerto Rican metal worker and a ponytailed white truck driver swap stories about Mexican laborers driving down construction wages.
[A federal law mentioned below would require the city of Hazleton to reimburse the ACLU’s money in the lawsuit if successful—but not the other way around. This law is known as the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act of 1976. For more information on this law see this article by Phyllis Schlafly.]
Hazleton—Mayor Lou Barletta said the fund set up to defend the city’s Illegal Immigration Relief Act has already received several thousand dollars in donations, with checks coming in from donors across the nation.
“It’s amazing. The checks have been coming in non-stop,” Barletta said Thursday. “Some people even sent in donations before we were sued.”
The legal defense fund was recently set up through www.smalltowndefenders.com, a Web site Barletta developed specifically to provide information about the illegal immigration ordinance. Donations can be made via credit card through the Web site or by sending checks directly to City Hall.
Barletta said the donations will be used exclusively to pay legal costs associated with the federal lawsuit filed Tuesday against the city by 11 city residents and three charitable organizations. The plaintiffs, backed by several national civil rights groups, are seeking to get the ordinance declared unconstitutional.
Barletta said the money is being held in a separate city account and will be subject to the city’s annual audit. He does not believe the account is subject to any outside regulation because the money will not be used for political reasons.
The largest single donation has been $500 from an 83-year-old man from Waco, Texas, he said. Other donations have come from residents of Alaska, Florida, California and Illinois.
The illegal immigrant ordinance, passed in July, makes English the official language in the city and provides for penalties for landlords who rent to illegal aliens and businesses that employ them.
Barletta said the ordinance was needed to rid the city of illegal immigrants, who he says are largely responsible for crimes, particularly drug dealing, that has plagued the city in recent years. But opponents say the ordinance is discriminatory and will harm law-abiding citizens.
Under federal law, the ACLU and other attorneys in the case would be entitled to recover legal fees from the city should the plaintiffs prevail in court. The city, however, would not be able to recoup its legal fees unless it can show the suit was filed in bad faith with no legal basis, Walczak said.
“Their standard (for obtaining legal fees) is very different from ours if they prevail in the lawsuit,” he said.