Owner admits Hazleton's immigrant law didn't force store to close
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HAZLETON, Pa. -- This small city is filled with immigrants and urban legends. Most of the stories claim that the Hazleton laws aimed at throwing out illegal immigrants have harmed innocent people instead.
On North Wyoming Street, where Latino newcomers operate nearly all the businesses, many people insist that the ordinances drove out Jose and Rosa Lechuga, who owned a restaurant and grocery store.
The Lechugas, legal immigrants from Mexico, said police damaged their businesses by parking cruisers nearby. They said this was a source of intimidation to potential customers, whether they had citizenship or not.
But last week, during the early stages of the federal trial that will decide the constitutionality of Hazleton's immigration laws, city lawyers exposed the Lechugas' story as untrue.
Mr. Lechuga admitted under oath that he and his wife had failed to make their mortgage payments for months before the ordinances targeting illegal immigrants were approved. He said his Hazleton stores collapsed after he opened a second unprofitable market on the outskirts of the city.
Even more damning, Mr. Lechuga testified that most of his customers at the suburban store were illegal immigrants, primarily construction laborers. After the workers were caught in a federal raid, his suburban store had to be shuttered and he spiraled into debt.
Defenders of Hazleton's laws were exultant after his admissions. For months, the Lechugas had been held out as a symbol of all that was wrong with Hazleton Mayor Louis Barletta's attempt to crack down on illegal immigrants.
Mr. Barletta said Hazleton, in Luzerne County, has had a net gain of 27 Latino-owned businesses since the Lechugas' stores closed.
"I would never be part of a law that would hurt legal immigrants," he said during a break in the trial, which is being held in U.S. District Court in Scranton. "Business is up because shootings are down on Wyoming Street."
Mr. Barletta, 51, is a lifelong Hazleton resident who has been mayor for seven years. Poised, telegenic and friendly even to his critics, he was the most sought-after figure of the trial's first week. One spectator, an African-American woman, stopped Mr. Barletta in the courthouse hallway to thank him for his crusade against illegal immigrants.
Mr. Barletta, a Republican, hopes his town is on the verge of winning the right to enforce its immigration ordinances. U.S. District Judge James Munley has blocked the laws from taking effect until he can rule on their constitutionality. Hazleton's laws would penalize landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and businesses that hire them. In addition, every prospective renter would have to appear at city hall with proof of his citizenship or legal right to be in the United States. Hazleton would be the first U.S. city to mandate background checks on tenants.
The American Civil Liberties Union, other civil rights groups and various individuals sued Hazleton, contending that the federal government, not cities, must regulate immigration.
Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said immigration law is complicated and often murky, despite Mr. Barletta's contention that every immigrant without proper documentation is a lawbreaker.
Mr. Barletta readily agrees that he sees immigration as a black-or-white issue, though not in terms of race. Rather, he said, he finds no gray area in whether somebody is entitled to be in America.
"Have you ever said illegal is illegal?" Mr. Walczak asked the mayor when he took the witness said.
"I think it will be on my tombstone," Mr. Barletta said.
He blames illegal immigrants for causing five-hour waits in the emergency room of Hazleton's private hospital. Mr. Barletta says they are using the emergency room for primary care, though he admits he has no proof to back up his claim. People seeking emergency treatment cannot be asked about their citizenship.
Classrooms are crowded, another problem Mr. Barletta ties to illegal immigrants. Citing his favorite statistic, the mayor says the Hazleton Area School District in 2000 had a budget of $500 for students who needed help with English as their second language. Today, Mr. Barletta says, the program costs $1.15 million.
Witnesses called by opponents of the law cast doubts on many of the mayor's contentions.
Manuel Saldana testified that his 11-year-old daughter, a U.S. citizen, receives instruction in English as a second language. Mr. Saldana, a naturalized citizen from the Dominican Republic, said the program will help her be a successful student and productive citizen.
ACLU lawyers used this testimony to jab Mr. Barletta over his contention that illegal newcomers are draining school budgets.
"You want people to speak English. You made English the official language of Hazleton, didn't you?" Mr. Walczak said to the mayor.
Mr. Barletta agreed that he had championed an official-English law.
"Well, we'll defend your right of free speech," Mr. Walczak said.
Later, Mr. Walczak got the mayor to admit that any person without health insurance could seek care in the emergency room of a hospital. He asked the mayor if he was familiar with statistics showing that some 45 million Americans do not have medical coverage.
Fighting back, Mr. Barletta said he was more aware of a different study purporting that 20 million illegal immigrants are in the United States.
Mr. Barletta said Hazleton's immigration laws would reduce crime and save lives. It was the murder of a man named Derek Kichline that Mr. Barletta said motivated him to push for the ordinances.
Two assailants shot Mr. Kichline to death on a Hazleton street the night of May 10. Both suspects are illegal immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Mr. Barletta said one of them had prior arrests, but had remained in America anyway. He was living in Freeland, a town just outside Hazleton, until his arrest in the Kichline case.
City lawyers, though, fought hard to prevent the mayor from being questioned about other crimes. Hazleton's own police records show that about 8,500 felonies were committed in the city during the last six years. Illegal immigrants are suspects in about 20 of those cases, including the Kichline murder, Mr. Walczak said.
Manuel Espinal, 18, said Mr. Barletta's focus on one notorious case bothers him. Mr. Espinal, also from the Dominican Republic, is a legal immigrant who is going to college and working in his family's grocery store on Wyoming Street.
Hazleton has had other murders, but Mr. Barletta never went on a campaign to increase the number of police officers to reduce violence, Mr. Espinal said.
Indeed, Hazleton has 33 police officers today, nine fewer than it did when Mr. Barletta took office in 2000. Mr. Barletta says his city should have 65 officers.
He said he has been hamstrung on hiring because of tight budgets. Mr. Barletta inherited a $1.2 million deficit when he took office in 2000. The number was staggering, considering that the city's budget is only about $7.5 million.
But by 2004, Hazleton had a surplus of $300,000 and its assessed property valuation had increased for the third consecutive year.
If Mr. Barletta and his detractors agree on anything, it is that Hazleton grew rapidly and its property tax base expanded because of Latino newcomers.
The mayor and one of his most outspoken critics, Dr. Agapito Lopez, estimate that Hazleton's population has jumped from 22,000 to perhaps 33,000 today. (The U.S. Census Bureau still lists Hazleton's population at the lower figure, even after its 2005 update).
Many of Hazleton's new residents left New York after the terrorist attacks in 2001, said Rudy Espinal, 39, who counts himself in that group.
Once an illegal immigrant from the Dominican Republic, he obtained U.S. citizenship and received his real estate license in 2002. He now has his own business on Wyoming Street and is running for the Hazleton City Council as a Democrat.
"I like it here and I plan to stay," he said.
But he also maintains that Hazleton's vitality has evaporated since the ordinances were approved.
Rudy Espinal said a friend of his, a legal resident who is struggling to learn English, was stopped by police and asked for his immigration papers. Such tactics have created fear and emboldened those who have biases against foreigners, he said.
The mayor counters by saying Hazleton has six known street gangs, a development that coincided with illegal immigrants settling in the area.
Moreover, despite its population growth, Hazleton has seen no increase in earned income tax collections. Mr. Barletta said this demonstrates that many of the newcomers are not working or are working illegally and not reporting their income.
Other anecdotal evidence suggests that the Latino population boom in Hazleton did not end with passage of the ordinances. Dr. Lopez reluctantly admitted that St. Gabriel's Catholic Church is packed on Sundays. Masses are said in Spanish.
The mayor makes public appearances without bodyguards, but he has received death threats and denunciations for his immigration policies. One female opponent of his ordinances went on local television and called Mr. Barletta "a monkey."
For all the controversy, Mr. Barletta is a popular figure in Hazleton's Latino neighborhoods. Many on Wyoming Street praised him for creating recreation programs to help their kids.
Several said Mr. Barletta personally asked them what they needed to keep children busy in summer, then made sure baseball fields and playgrounds were built.
Judge Munley will hear perhaps another week of testimony. After that, he will review the evidence and decide whether Hazleton's laws will stand or fall.
Either way, Mr. Barletta says he will keep up the fight.
"I really believe most legal immigrants like what we're trying to do," he said.Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press
Jose Lechuga once claimed that he and his wife, Rosa, had to close their restaurant and grocery store in Hazleton because of police harassment. But he recently admitted in federal court that personal debt caused the collapse of his businesses.
Click photo for larger image.Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Hazleton Mayor Louis Barletta wants laws to punish landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and businesses that hire them.
Click photo for larger image.
First Published March 18, 2007 12:00 am