Triple murder prompts law against illegal immigrants
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ALTOONA -- Miguel Padilla, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, visited Altoona one night and murdered three people after being denied admission to a social club.
He had been in the United States for 17 years and had accumulated an arrest record before he shot his victims. Even so, the U.S. government neglected to deport him, a lapse that led hometown Congressman Bill Shuster to question the competence of the federal bureaucracy responsible for policing immigration.
This month, more than a year after the murders, Altoona implemented a law of its own aimed at driving illegal immigrants out of town. The ordinance, which took effect a week ago, would punish businesses that hire illegal immigrants and landlords who rent to them.
A railroad and industrial town of 47,000 people, Altoona is the largest Pennsylvania city to approve an immigration ordinance.
Republican Mayor Wayne Hippo, who pushed for the law, said he was inspired by the northeastern Pennsylvania city of Hazleton, the first town to approve an ordinance designed to root out illegal immigrants.
Aside from the laws they passed, Hazleton and Altoona have almost nothing in common.
Hazleton, 130 miles from New York City, had a booming population of Latino immigrants when it passed its law. Mayor Louis Barletta says thousands of the newcomers are in the county illegally, creating havoc for Hazleton police and straining other city services.
Two illegal immigrants from the Dominican Republic were charged with shooting and killing a Hazleton man in May.
"After that, our people were afraid to walk down the street," Mr. Barletta said. "I had to do something to protect them."
But the mayor's critics say all his law accomplished was to unleash a wave of bigotry against brown-skinned newcomers, many of whom are naturalized U.S. citizens who hold jobs and pay taxes.
In contrast, Altoona, in Blair County, has no discernible immigrant base, legal or illegal. Altoona's population peaked at 80,000 during the 1930s. In that era, its famous Horseshoe Curve on the Pennsylvania Railroad was so vital to American transportation that the Nazis planned to destroy it. These days, with its industrial base in decline, Altoona loses more people than it attracts.
Mr. Padilla, 27, convicted last month and sentenced to death for the triple murder, did not live in Altoona but in Gallitzin in neighboring Cambria County.
Still, his crimes created momentum for the Altoona law. Mr. Padilla had a driver's license, a diploma from Penn Cambria High School and a police record. Before the murders, he had been charged with illegal possession of a gun and stabbing his former father-in-law, records show.
Mr. Shuster, in a speech on the U.S. House floor, said police told Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers that Mr. Padilla was in the country illegally after the stabbing charge. Yet no move was made to deport him. Left free, he ventured to Altoona on an August night, got into a row and murdered.
Most residents say the Padilla case justifies the new city law.
"How do you get through the system like he did?" said Robert Gutshall, 63, a retiree who moved back to Altoona after spending 25 years in other parts of the country. "There's no question in my mind that the murders were the driving factor for this ordinance."
Aside from the Padilla case, Mr. Hippo said, illegal immigration has not been an issue in Altoona.
"We're being proactive. It's not like we have a stack of complaints we're investigating," he said.
Vic Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, says city laws regarding immigration are likely to do harm but no good.
Because Mr. Padilla lived outside of Altoona, its ordinance would not have gotten him off the streets before he killed.
"This case demonstrates why immigration is a national issue and needs to be dealt with by Congress," Mr. Walczak said.
His organization and Latino groups are preparing to sue Hazleton as soon as it begins enforcing its immigration law, which was rewritten after being approved in July. The revised Hazleton law is to take effect next month.
Mr. Walczak says the ACLU intends to spend its time and resources knocking down the Hazleton ordinance, which he regards as a danger to society.
"Mayor Barletta is willing to sacrifice a lot of innocent people to get a guilty one," he said.
As for the Altoona law, the ACLU will accept complaints from anybody wrongly ensnared in an immigration case and then decide whether to sue, Mr. Walczak said.
"In some ways, the Altoona ordinance is broader than Hazleton's," he said. "What they have is a snitch system that could exacerbate prejudices people have against foreigners."
Mr. Hippo said the Altoona law, crafted by recently retired city solicitor Bob Alexander, was written to comply with U.S. Supreme Court decisions on immigration policies. He said he believes it would withstand any court challenge.
But the ACLU maintains the Altoona law, even if never enforced, is fundamentally flawed.
"They're doing this, ostensibly, because the feds have failed," Mr. Walczak said. "But Altoona's ordinance says they're not going to do anything in an individual case until the feds say a person is illegal. It still boils down to the federal government handling immigration."
Altoona Councilman Joseph Rieker calls the ACLU "a nutso organization" that is quick to disparage any city trying to live by rule of law.
Mr. Rieker's wife is a native of Lima, Peru. He says they are going through an arduous and costly process so she can become a U.S. citizen.
"We're doing it the right way. I don't have sympathy for people who come here illegally and refuse to go through the steps for citizenship," he said.
But, like most everyone else in Altoona, Mr. Rieker, 40, does not see illegal immigration as a critical issue for the city. He said he worries more about the viability and livability of a rust-belt town that continues to lose population. He says he is weighing whether to resign his council seat and move his family and his insurance business to North Carolina.
"This is just not an attractive place to live unless you have family here or you have a ton of dough," Mr. Rieker said.
Only one of the six Altoona city council members, Republican Matthew Garber, voted against the immigration law. He said he has taken little flak over his vote, but that the rest of the council has been showered with praise.
"One of my concerns was that the costs could outweigh the benefits," said Mr. Garber, 28, a councilman for eight months.
Aside from him, the only opposition to the Altoona ordinance came from clergy members, notably the Catholic bishop of the Altoona-Johnstown diocese and his priests.
The Rev. Luke Robertson, director of Catholic charities in Altoona, said U.S. citizens account for "the vast majority" of those seeking assistance to pay utility bills or feed a family. Rarely, he said, does his agency see an illegal immigrant.
But one concern of priests, he said, was that the ordinance, as originally drafted, could have displaced a breadwinner whose spouse or children are legal U.S. residents.
In response, the council decided that "a mixed family" -- one with legal and illegal members -- would not be forced out of property it is renting. A continuing concern, Father Robertson said, is that the adult paying the bills for such a family might lose his job because he is in the country illegally. Then children could wind up on the streets, he said.
Mr. Hippo says his Catholic friends have had nothing but praise for the immigration ordinance.
"I think this is a time when the leadership is out of touch with the flock," he said.
The mayor said Altoona approved its law mostly to ward off an influx of illegal immigrants, such as the one that Mr. Barletta complains about in Hazleton.
"Mercifully, the immigration problem has not hit us yet," Mr. Hippo said. "But it's not confined to Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, and we know that."
First Published October 15, 2006 12:00 am