Rally backs Hazleton mayor

700 turn out in support of effort against undocumented workers

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HAZLETON, Pa. -- About 700 people turned out yesterday for a rally to support Mayor Lou Barletta's controversial efforts in this small Eastern Pennsylvania city of 21,000 to crack down on immigrants who have entered the country illegally.

They waved American flags, carried signs and wore T-shirts bearing slogans such as "Welcome to America. Now speak English" and "Diversity = Death."

One local group, Export the Imports, sold bottled water and T-shirts, saying profits would go to a legal defense fund to fight the American Civil Liberties Union's lawsuit over a 2006 ordinance that made Hazleton the first community in the country to make hiring undocumented workers illegal and renting apartments to them criminal acts.

"We are not fighting this just for Hazleton; we are fighting this for all of America," Mr. Barletta said from a podium at the entrance to city hall. "What we started here in Hazleton gave Americans hope. ... This is why we're fighting as fiercely as we are."

Speakers including William Gheen of Americans for Legal Immigration praised Mr. Barletta and Hazleton leaders for passing the ordinance last summer in this Luzerne County town.

"You started the landslide that now involves over 200 cities and towns across the nation," Mr. Gheen, of North Carolina, said. "Hazleton is truly historic. People here have done a great job of standing up and people all across the nation are rooting for Hazleton" as it defends its ordinance in court.

Immigrants who come here illegally bring crime, transmit diseases, overcrowd schools, burden police departments, take jobs and strain municipal services, he and other speakers said.

They come from places like Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico, where murder rates are much higher than in the United States, he said.

"If you bring in a million people from these countries, is that going to increase your crime rate? Of course it is. That's common sense," Mr. Gheen said.

Opponents of the ordinance say it is racist, hateful and unnecessary.

Carmen Morales of the group You Don't Speak for Me countered those assertions.

"Illegal immigration is not about race, ladies and gentlemen. Illegal immigration is about respecting our laws. Illegal immigrants are ignoring all of our laws," she said. "If you are an illegal alien, you don't belong here."

Other speakers railed against a sweeping federal immigration policy that the U.S. Senate is expected to resume work on this week. The controversial bill, which President Bush is pushing for, would legalize millions of immigrants in the country illegally.

Mr. Barletta said the bill would reward people who broke the law to be in this country and give an incentive to others thinking of crossing the borders.

Other speakers during the two-hour rally included former vice presidential candidate Ezola Foster and Gino's Cheesesteaks restaurant owner Joey Vento of Philadelphia, who was propelled into the national spotlight when he posted a sign insisting that customers order in English.

There were no organized counter demonstrations, although a few opponents of the ordinance were scattered in the crowd.

Police officers escorted two of them away from the rally -- for their own protection -- after several women in the crowd confronted them and screamed "Go home!" and "We don't want you here."

One of those men was Amilcar Arroyo, publisher of a Spanish-language newspaper that has railed against Mr. Barletta's immigration stance.

"Somebody had to confront him for that," said Ciaran Palmer, of Bethlehem, one of the rally participants who led the verbal assault. "He has the right to free speech, but he has to be prepared for the consequences."

Alan Frank, of nearby Kingston, who also opposes the ordinance, said Mr. Barletta is using it as a tool to advance his political career.

"He's a small-town mayor who thinks he can build his political base by playing on people's fears of immigrants," said Dr. Frank, an optometrist. "He's going to lose the court case and use millions of dollars to fight it -- money he could have used for the social services that he says these people are sucking up."

To Dr. Frank, Hazleton's position in the forefront of the illegal immigration war is not the honor city officials are purporting it to be.

"Northeastern Pennsylvania is a great place to live. I love it here," he said. "I don't want it to be known as a place that puts up ordinances that make life difficult for people."

Tracie Mauriello can be reached at tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141.


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