Pa. City's Law Offers Immigration Test Case

A federal court in Scranton, Pa., heard testimony Monday from several Hispanic residents who said a city ordinance passed to discourage illegal immigrants changed their relationships with the townspeople.

The small town passed an ordinance that would punish those who hire undocumented immigrants — or rent property to them. The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups, along with some former Hazleton residents, challenge the ordinance, calling it discriminatory and saying it oversteps the authority of the local government.

A federal judge has blocked the ordinance from taking effect while the case is argued. There are nationwide implications: 26 other cities have passed similar laws and dozens more are considering doing so.

Witnesses who testified Monday said they had moved to Hazleton, on the edge of the Poconos, for a better quality of life and had helped revive what had been a "ghost town."

They said that before the ordinance, their relationships with native-born residents had been cordial. One even lauded Mayor Lou Barletta as a champion of the Hispanic community.

Then the city passed the measure allowing Hazleton to revoke the license of those who employ illegal workers, and fine landlords who rent to them.

Witnesses said the ordinance sowed fear and divisions. One described hard stares and hate mail. A couple of Mexican descent — both legal residents — said they had to close their food store and restaurant after business dried up. They said customers were afraid to come, citing rumors that police were questioning people on the streets.

Lawyers for Hazleton sought to establish that the Mexican couple experienced financial problems before the law passed. One attorney listed a number of Latino-owned businesses that he said are doing fine.

Hazleton's legal team also said the immigrant influx had led to a steep rise in violent crime. And two Hispanic witnesses said they did believe crime was up, in part because of Latino gangs.

The ACLU asserts that only the federal government has authority to set immigration law. But city's lawyers argued that courts have often allowed local laws to exist alongside federal ones, if they don't conflict.

More testimony will come from Mayor Barletta, and from a number of illegal immigrants. The court has agreed to protect their identities.

Local Immigration Law Challenged by ACLU

A federal trial began Monday over an anti-illegal immigration ordinance passed in Hazleton, Pa., last year. The law punishes employers who hire undocumented immigrants, and fines landlords who rent to them.

Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta says the mountain-top town of 30,000 used to be an idyllic slice of America: seniors sitting on porches, kids frolicking in playgrounds. An economic revival in the past decade attracted an increasing number of immigrants — Mexicans, Dominicans and Central Americans. Some credit them with helping save the city from bankruptcy. But Barletta says he began to realize last year that the new population included illegal immigrants who've brought unwanted change.

"More and more violent crimes were being committed, more and more drug dealers arrested, and more and more times, it involved illegal aliens," he said. "We realized we were having a problem for some reason in Hazleton with illegal immigration."

Barletta led the push for a law that punishes businesses for hiring illegal immigrants, and landlords for renting to them. That has made him a national figure.

Barletta says dealing with undocumented suspects, who may have multiple identities to sort through, is time consuming and expensive for his small police department. And there are other costs: He said the price tag for providing English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction in public schools has grown from $500 seven years ago to more than $1 million today.

Barletta says his ordinance aims to drive the illegal population from Hazleton. So far, a federal court has blocked the law from taking effect, but the exodus has already begun.

Rudy Espinal, the head of Hazleton's Hispanic Business Associaton, said, "People left, intimidated by the environment this law created."

Because of the declining Hispanic population, Espinal says, some businesses that serve them are just trying to survive, whereas before, they'd planned to expand. He says even legal immigrants have felt under attack.

"What's happening is we have the city encouraging people, almost requiring people to discriminate," said Omar Jadwat, a lawyer with the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project.

Jadwat says employers and landlords have no training in how to determine whether an immigrant is legal. So if Hazleton's law took effect, he says they'd likely avoid hiring or renting to anyone with dark skin or an accent. Jadwat also calls the law pernicious, because it's based on complaints that could come from anyone: neighbors, co-workers, complete strangers.

But Kris Kobach says there's a safeguard. He is the main lawyer for Hazleton and a former adviser on immigration to Attorney General John Ashcroft.

"No complaint can be based on a person's race, ethnicity or national origin," Kobach said. "So if a complaint attempts to target someone, the complaint has to be thrown out completely, even if the person actually was illegal."

Aside from such constitutional issues, Vic Walzcak, of the Pennsylvania state ACLU, says Hazleton's claims about the need for the ordinance are unfounded.

"We think the evidence is going to show that in fact, illegal immigrants have not created this epic tidal wave of crime, that they are not bankrupting the schools and health-care systems, and, frankly, that Mayor Barletta has exaggerated the problems with illegal immigrants in the city of Hazleton," he said.

Both sides say they're prepared to appeal this case all the way to the Supreme Court. To help Hazleton pay for that, Mayor Barletta has set up a legal defense fund, which he says has raised more than $100,000.

"I had a veteran send me a $5 bill and two ones, and say, 'This is everything I have in my wallet. Don't quit fighting mayor, you're fighting for all of us,'" he said. "And I realize we are."

Across the country, 26 towns have already followed Hazleton's lead; dozens of towns may join them if the anti-illegal immigration act stands up in court.

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