Spotlight dims as Hazleton awaits ruling on illegal immigration law

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HAZLETON, Pa. -- A man with one leg arrived last week from Philadelphia. He made his way to city hall and donated $40 to Hazleton's government, which is in the thick of a lawsuit over its attempts to evict illegal immigrants.

His was one of hundreds of modest contributions that poured in during the week, mostly from people who had never heard of Hazleton until it was sued by civil rights groups that oppose its immigration reform ordinances.

Testimony over whether Hazleton's laws are constitutional concluded Thursday, but it will be at least two months before U.S. District Judge James Munley issues a ruling.

The case has put Hazleton's mayor, Louis Barletta, in the spotlight, bringing him attention on both coasts and most places in between.

"I think the Hazleton mayor should be the role model for all American mayors," said Robin Hvidston, an Upland, Calif., woman who has been pressing for enforcement of immigration laws in Southern California.

Mr. Barletta, a Republican, was less pleased with support offered by a Ku Klux Klansman named Joseph Bednarsky Jr. Mr. Bednarsky, of Millville, N.J., said he wants to stage a rally in Hazleton to applaud the mayor's efforts.

Mr. Barletta denounced the Klan, saying he did not want its support or its presence in Hazleton.

Critics of the mayor say his zealous campaign against illegal immigrants has brought out the worst in people.

"People in Hazleton used to live together in relative harmony. The ordinances have promoted hostility toward all immigrants," said Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, one of the groups that sued the city.

One Hazleton law would require every prospective renter to appear at city hall to provide proof of citizenship or the legal right to be in the United States. The other ordinances would penalize businesses that hire illegal immigrants and landlords that rent to them.

Judge Munley has barred Hazleton from enforcing the laws until he can decide whether they are constitutional.

"The case is very convoluted, and these are very important issues," the judge said after testimony concluded.

Contrary to Judge Munley, Mr. Barletta sees the case as a simple matter of right and wrong.

The mayor says people who are in the country illegally are ruining Hazleton by crowding its schools, overrunning its hospital and turning its citizens into crime victims, Illegal immigrants are suspects in two notorious Hazleton crimes of 2006 -- the murder of a man who was shot on a street and the rape of a 6-year-old girl.

The U.S. Census Bureau says Hazleton has a population of 22,000. But a demographics expert hired by the city testified that Hazleton has perhaps 33,000 residents, 10 percent of whom could be illegal immigrants.

Large numbers of Latinos moved to Hazleton from New York City after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Today, Hazleton has a defined Latino business district that has received the mayor's attention and support. The business operators are all U.S. citizens, and deserve a warm welcome, Mr. Barletta said.

But even with the population boom, Hazleton's tax on wages has remained flat. Mr. Barletta said this is just one indication that many newcomers are in Hazleton illegally, working off the books for unscrupulous employers. He wants to drive them out.

Kris Kobach, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor, made most of Hazleton's arguments at trial. He said every person in the country illegally is like a drunk who gets behind the wheel of a car. The intoxicated driver may not be caught by police, but he nonetheless is breaking the law and endangering innocent people.

Mr. Kobach is with the Immigration Reform Law Institute and was personal lawyer to former U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft. The mayor called Mr. Kobach last summer to ask for help in defending Hazleton's ordinances. Some $200,000 donated to Hazleton by private citizens enabled the city to hire Mr. Kobach and four other attorneys with expertise on immigration.

Twenty lawyers, from the ACLU, private firms and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, opposed the city's legal team.

During the trial, Mr. Kobach focused most of his attention on federal law, which he says welcomes supplementary immigration ordinances such as Hazleton's.

Congress requires the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to provide cities with information about a person's immigration status, Mr. Kobach said. Hazleton merely would rely on the federal government's findings to determine if a business or landlord had harbored an illegal immigrant, he said.

Mr. Walczak, though, contended that Hazleton is a small city intent on usurping authority held by the federal government.

He said Hazleton's plan to determine citizenship by forcing renters to obtain city permits is at odds with the U.S. Constitution, which gives the federal government control of immigration policy.

On this point, the ACLU received support from an unlikely ally -- the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The chamber opposes Hazleton's ordinances, saying it does not want cities to involve themselves in immigration and create a patchwork of laws that differ from one town to the next.

Mr. Walczak said Hazleton's ordinances already have had negative consequences, even though they have not been enforced.

Children who need extra help with English have been labeled by Mr. Barletta as "illegal aliens" who are sapping money from the Hazleton Area School District, Mr. Walczak said. In truth, he said, many of these youngsters are U.S. residents who are trying to build a better life in America, just as the mayor's Italian ancestors did.

Mr. Walczak also admitted that various people opposing the Hazleton ordinances are illegal immigrants. He submitted depositions from five "John Does" who do not have citizenship and are living in Hazleton illegally.

Some of these people have American-born children who are U.S. citizens. If the Hazleton laws take effect, families with a mix of legal and illegal residents could be split up, Mr. Walczak said.

Mr. Barletta said he would take no joy in separating children from their parents, but he would enforce the law.

"Losing a family is the risk an individual takes when he comes to the United States illegally," he said. "It's a national problem. I'm trying to find solutions for Hazleton's problems."


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


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