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In this country, immigration is the central issue in a federal trial. It's the first federal proceeding against a local law aimed at illegal immigrants. Hazleton, Pennsylvania wants to penalize those who hire or rent to undocumented immigrants. The ACLU and civil rights groups say only the federal government can do that. Now yesterday a judge ruled that an almost identical ordinance in Missouri violated state law. Other cities will watch those cases as they consider their own laws.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Several Hispanic immigrants testified yesterday that they'd moved to Hazleton, on the edge of the Poconos, for a better quality of life. They said they'd helped revive what had been a ghost town, and that relations with native-born residents had been cordial. One even lauded Mayor Lou Barletta as a champion of the Hispanic community.

Then, they testified, all that changed last summer, after the city passed its anti-illegal immigrant ordinance. The law would revoke the license of those who employ illegal workers and fine those who rent to them. A federal judge blocked it from taking affect, but witnesses said it has still sowed fear and divisions. One described hard stares and hate mail. A Mexican couple, both legal residents, said they had to close their food store and restaurant after business dried up. They said people were afraid to come because of the ordinance and reports that police were questioning people on the streets.

The defense called all this into question. A lawyer for Hazleton showed the Mexican couple had financial problems even before the law passed. He also listed a number of Latino-owned businesses he said were doing just fine. Hazleton attorneys also said the immigrant influx has 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 the city's attorneys argued that courts have allowed local laws to essentially 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.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Scranton.

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