Hazleton ordinance aimed at illegal immigrants puts mayor at center stage

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HAZLETON, Pa. -- Each morning money from strangers pours into the office of Mayor Louis Barletta, architect of Hazleton's new law to kick illegal immigrants out of town.

Most of the checks come from distant places and are for $50 or $100. Contributors also send Mr. Barletta handwritten notes of encouragement, telling him to use their money to fend off the American Civil Liberties Union and the big-city lawyers who have sued the northeastern Pennsylvania town over its immigration ordinance.

The mayor, buoyed by his sudden celebrity and coast-to-coast interest in the law, promises to do just that.

"We'll fight this to the highest court," Mr. Barletta said one day last week. "I needed to do something to save this city. Illegal immigrants are ruining the quality of life, which is the best thing a small town has to offer."

Hazleton's ordinance would require all prospective renters to obtain a residency permit at city hall. If the municipal crews doing background checks cannot confirm they are U.S. citizens or are in the country legally, they will be prohibited from living in Hazleton.

Landlords who skirt the law and rent to illegal immigrants would be fined $1,000 a day. Companies that employ illegals would lose their business licenses for five years.

The ordinance also declares English to be the official language of Hazleton. Mr. Barletta, though, said the law's "English-only" provision may be rewritten as a separate ordinance. In any case, he said, Hazleton will refuse to print city information in any language except English, even if it's about health codes or building inspections.

Mr. Barletta, 50, a Republican who has been mayor for six years, knows he has caught political lightning with his immigration ordinance. People who had not heard of the Luzerne County town two months ago now praise him as a politician with backbone in a country that has gone soft.

But critics call him a demagogue who is ignorant of immigration law and uninterested in treating newcomers fairly.

"We have no interest in defending illegal immigration, but the Hazleton law is un-American. In order to get the guilty, the mayor is willing to sacrifice a lot of innocent people," said Vic Walczak, legal director of the Pittsburgh ACLU, and one of the attorneys challenging the ordinance in a federal lawsuit.

For instance, Mr. Walczak said, green cards allowing immigrants to work legally in the United States can be lost, stolen or delayed when reissued. Hazleton's law, he said, has no due process provision that would allow a hard-working, taxpaying immigrant to appeal an incorrect ruling at city hall.

"This is a complex process and even immigration judges get it wrong frequently," Mr. Walczak said. "How is this borough government going to determine who's legal?"

Five private law firms and three civil rights organizations contend in the lawsuit that Hazleton's law is overly broad and usurps the supremacy clause of the constitution, under which the federal government controls immigration.

The mayor modeled Hazleton's ordinance after one that was proposed but voted down in San Bernadino, Calif. He says focusing on renters and hometown employers is "a crafty way" to allow the city to detect illegal immigrants without contradicting any federal law.

Legal immigrants say Hazleton's law, enacted but not yet enforced, has created a wave of bigotry they would not have thought possible weeks ago.

"I liked it here and had never had any trouble. Now people yell at me, 'Go back where you came from.' " said Maria Lopez Scott, a native of the Dominican Republic. A U.S. citizen for 18 years, she has lived in Hazleton area for four.

One recent day, while standing outside Charli's Produce, the grocery store where she works, a neighbor shouted at her to leave before she called police. Ms. Scott did not bother trying to explain that she was on a break from her job.

Ms. Scott lived previously in New York City and Paterson, N.J. She said Hazleton, about 80 miles north of Harrisburg, attracted her because it offered more affordable housing and a slower pace of life.

Now, she said, what looked like a nice town has turned into a mean one. She said she wants to move.

Charli's Produce, once filled with Latin newcomers, is struggling. The store is in West Hazleton, one of the three suburbs that this summer approved immigration ordinances modeled after Hazleton's.

Mr. Barletta is unsympathetic to claims that the new laws are hurting minority-owned businesses. If they are losing blocs of customers who are in the country illegally, so be it, the mayor said.

Census Bureau estimates place Hazleton's population at 21,100, a decline of 3,000 since 1990. Mr. Barletta does not accept the figure, contending that the town has exploded to 31,000 residents, many of them illegal.

He cannot say how he arrived at the higher figure, as the cash-strapped city government has done no population analysis of its own.

The mayor, though, said anecdotal evidence suggests a surge of illegal residents. Classrooms in the Hazleton Area School District have become crowded. Plus, Mr. Barletta said, the district had to dramatically expand its budget for students needing help with English as a second language.

Agapito Lopez, a retired ophthalmologist, said none of that proves people are in the country illegally. He said many newcomers, perhaps even Mr. Barletta's Italian grandparents, had to improve their English when they moved to America.

Dr. Lopez, though, agrees with the mayor on one point. He also says Hazleton's population has increased rapidly, to perhaps 30,000. He attributes this mostly to legal immigrants who left New York City for small-town life in Pennsylvania.

Dr. Lopez, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, said the mayor welcomed the newcomers, mostly Latins, until he saw a way to exploit them.

Mr. Barletta, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2002, appears to be using the immigration law to position himself for another try at higher office, Dr. Lopez said.

The mayor jokes when asked if he intends to run for the U.S. House or perhaps a high state office. "Maybe after this I'll be running for dog catcher," he says.

Yet, in a television taping last week he sounded as if he were someone campaigning for national office, linking illegal immigration to terrorism. "Let's understand there are people around the world that want to hurt us," he said.

He uses no notes when doing interviews, but keeps a napkin in his suit pocket if he's under television lights. Ever conscious of his appearance, he uses it to wipe sweat off his face during breaks.

Mr. Barletta wore a bulletproof vest to the July meeting at which the city council approved his immigration ordinance on a 4-1 vote. Detractors say he was being melodramatic, but the mayor contends emotions were running high. He also says it was a crime wave that motivated him to push through the immigration law.

For him, the turning point was May 10, when two men shot and killed 29-year-old Derek Kichline on a Hazleton street. Both suspects are illegal immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Mr. Barletta said.

"This is a town where a murder might happen every seven years," he said. "It's unusual to have violence here. Then we had the shooting of Derek Kichline in broad daylight."

Police records differ with the mayor's account, placing the time of the killing at 11:40 p.m. Prosecutors have said the crime was not random, but have not discussed a motive.

Mr. Barletta said the killing marked the beginning of a crime spree, much of it by people who should not have been in Hazleton to begin with.

A 14-year-old, in the country illegally, fired shots at a Hazleton playground the day after the homicide. Federal officers running a drug raid rounded up sellers of crack cocaine. Some of those suspects also were in Hazleton illegally, Mr. Barletta said.

Hazleton has a 31-member police force, approximately half the size it should have, given the ballooning population, the mayor said.

"I'm not denying that other people commit crimes, but in a small city, any money and resources being spent on illegals is being spent in the wrong place," he said.

Critics, such as environmentalist Phil Kaufman of West Hazleton, say Mr. Barletta has seized on the immigration issue to lessen scrutiny of his performance.

"The so-called illegal aliens are not the problem," Mr. Kaufman said. "But the mayor likes to talk about illegal immigration because it removes the focus from how poorly managed city government is."

Hazleton likely will have a budget deficit this year, Mr. Barletta concedes. The $7.5 million general operating budget has been flat for years, despite his contention that growth has seized the town and created more businesses.

Mr. Barletta said his predecessor overpaid union contracts with police and other city workers, hamstringing him. This year, police overtime shot up because of the Kichline homicide and other violent crimes.

He wants to diversify the city economy with a commercial hub anchored by an amphitheater. Another more controversial plan is to import muck dredged from Philadelphia's harbor, then bury it atop the city landfill. Mr. Kaufman says he is selling out the town.

"It's always about money in Hazleton, not about people," Mr. Kaufman said. "Barletta is an extension of that history, dating back to the coal-mining days."

The immigration lawsuit has been assigned to a federal judge in Scranton. Hazleton solicitor Christopher Slusser said he is confident it will hold up. Still, Mr. Slusser has tried to keep city council members from commenting.

Councilman Robert Nilles, who cast the only vote against the immigration law, said he could not talk about the ordinance on advice of the city attorney.

Meantime, Mr. Barletta is making the rounds of talk shows and being interviewed by out-of-town reporters and television crews who visit Hazleton.

"It's good for the restaurants," Mr. Barletta says, then laughs.

Mr. Walczak of the ACLU said the lawsuit will debunk a myth that the Hazleton ordinance is a finely tuned instrument that will get rid of illegal immigrants. He contends that the law is so broad it can only hurt the town and its business climate.

"Those with brown skin and thick accents are coming under suspicion, even if they're citizens," Mr. Walczak said. "The overwhelming feeling I find in Hazleton is sadness."

Eugene Cannon, a Hazleton retiree who supports the mayor and his law, finds something else.

"The federal government has not been doing enough to stop illegal immigration. When Mayor Barletta advanced his initiative, it brought him national attention. I hope that will force the federal government to take some more direct action."


Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1956.


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