When David Lopez came to college in the big city, the immigration tensions in his small Pennsylvania hometown seemed a world away.
So he was surprised to find the discord had followed him 80 miles from Hazleton to Philadelphia. His community was being spotlighted in a Temple University class, “War in Hazleton: Main Street Meets the Global Village,” just four years after it became ground zero in the national debate on illegal immigrants.
The class has drawn the ire of Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta, who said he was never asked for any input or to address the students. Barletta, who blames an influx of illegal Hispanic immigrants for a deteriorating quality of life in the struggling former coal town, fears the class is unfairly portraying him as anti-immigrant and anti-Latino.
“I’m surprised and bewildered how a taxpayer-funded school could offer a course without interviewing one of the main principles that the course deals with,” Barletta said this week. “There’s no way that this course is not being slanted in one direction, which is unfortunate for the students, if that’s the case.”
Barletta championed a law that targeted landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and businesses that employ them. The law, one of many enacted by local leaders who thought the federal government wasn’t doing enough to combat illegal immigration, was thrown out in court. The city is appealing.
Professor Lori Zett said the class provides context, history and background to help students understand why illegal immigrants come to the U.S. It uses Barletta’s law as a starting point to examine immigration policy, the global economy and Latin American culture.
The course was proposed last year by Zett and Temple professor Frank Leib, whose family has strong roots in Hazleton. Leib said he hoped the course would include field trips to his hometown, where students could walk the streets, talk with people and interview the mayor. Zett, who has taught the course for two semesters, said field trips were nixed because of logistics and finances.
The class does get first-person perspectives from students like Lopez and Kayla Hartz, both 18-year-old freshmen from Hazleton. They describe the town of 30,000 as bitterly divided over immigration, with no room for shades of gray; both said the class has opened their eyes to issues never discussed at home.
But Hartz feels some legitimate complaints about immigrant-related problems in Hazleton–such as overcrowded schools–don’t get much support from Zett or other students.
The mayor also objected to an early course outline describing Hazleton as a Balkanized community filled “with a fierce mutual distrust.” That language is not in the current syllabus.