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Pennsylvania Town Passes Illegal Immigration Law

September 1, 2006 at 6:20 PM EST
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KWAME HOLMAN: Blues club owner Jim Christman says he wanted to spark a debate when he posted a sign outside his tavern, “Legals served here.”

JIM CHRISTMAN, Tavern Owner: It was meant to cause some controversy, to get people talking, because any time there’s an issue that comes up that’s very controversial, the best way to handle it is sit down and talk.

KWAME HOLMAN: The issue is illegal immigration. Once concentrated in border states and big cities, the debate has come to smaller communities, places such as Hazleton, Pennsylvania.

Like many small cities and towns in Pennsylvania, Hazleton suffered economically as coal-mining and manufacturing jobs left the region. Hazleton’s population declined for years. But since 2000, the town has seen a surge of new residents, mostly Latino, many undocumented.

The new residents were attracted by jobs in the town’s expanding industrial park and affordable housing. Hazleton’s Hispanic population exploded and today comprises almost a third of its 30,000 residents.

But in recent weeks, many have begun to leave, a response to a new city ordinance, one of the strictest laws in the nation aimed at illegal immigrants. Hazelton’s mayor is Republican Lou Barletta, himself a fourth-generation descendant of Italian immigrants. Until recently, he says, he welcomed all the newcomers.

MAYOR LOU BARLETTA (R), Hazleton: I’ve embraced that community as they’ve continued to come, and obviously our neighborhoods were seeing new people moving in, buying homes, renting homes, more people opening up mom-and-pop businesses again, which was exciting for me, as the mayor, to see that.

KWAME HOLMAN: Local business leader and retired ophthalmologist Agapito Lopez, a native of Puerto Rico, decided to settle in Hazelton a few years ago. He says the Latino community embraced the mayor, as well.

DR. AGAPITO LOPEZ, Business Leader: He was our friend. He cooperated with us. He even made a playground for us. He made a city within his city for us, you know, nice homes in the middle of downtown. You know, all this was, you know, to welcome the Latinos and the immigrants that were coming into town. And suddenly he changed. And, you know, I was amazed. I was surprised.

The last straw to take action

Mayor Lou Barletta
Hazleton, Penn.
The final straw came for me on May 10th of this year. It was 11:30 at night. I got a call from the chief of police. It was, 29-year-old Derek Kichline was shot between the eyes by two individuals. Those individuals were illegal aliens.

KWAME HOLMAN: Dr. Lopez says that change came in July, when Mayor Barletta got the Hazleton City Council to adopt, by a vote of 4-1, a new ordinance that would fine landlords who rent to illegal immigrants, fine employers who hire illegal immigrants, and designate English as the town's official language.

DR. AGAPITO LOPEZ: He didn't consult any of us, any of the leaders.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mayor Barletta says the measure is aimed only at Hazleton's undocumented, who may number up to 5,000. He also says illegal immigrants are causing a spike in drug activity and violent crime, burdening his small police force. It was one recent crime that Barletta says pushed him to take action.

MAYOR LOU BARLETTA: The final straw came for me on May 10th of this year. It was 11:30 at night. I got a call from the chief of police. It was, 29-year-old Derek Kichline was shot between the eyes by two individuals. Those individuals were illegal aliens.

Four were arrested in connection to that homicide; all four were illegal aliens. That very same day, on May 10th, a 14-year-old was arrested for shooting a gun into a crowded playground, a playground that was filled with Hispanic children. He was also an illegal alien.

The following week, there was a drug bust in downtown Hazleton where we permanently closed two businesses. There were more illegal aliens involved there; that's when I've had enough.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Agapito Lopez complains the ordinance cast a pall over the entire Hispanic community, legal and illegal alike.

DR. AGAPITO LOPEZ: ... because everybody would look at us as if we're undocumented immigrants, because there's no way that they can tell if we're documented or not.

Critical and rave reviews

Rico Nuss
I support the mayor 100 percent, because, going back to my grandmother and grandfather again, they were very proud that they became American citizens. ... We're not saying we don't want you to be an American, but do it the right way. Do it legally.

KWAME HOLMAN: Lopez and others say, even though the ordinance doesn't become law until mid-September, its effect already can be seen on Wyoming Street, the heart of the city's Hispanic community. Homes have gone up for sale, and Lopez estimates about half a dozen of the 60 Hispanic-owned businesses that opened in recent years have closed or are expected to soon.

MARIA LOPEZ SCOTT, Store Owner: The mayor forced the people going out of Hazleton. That's the truth. It's really bad for everybody: for the city, for me, for my family.

KWAME HOLMAN: Grocery store owner Maria Lopez Scott, a native New Yorker, has lived in Hazleton for seven years. She says the new ordinance is behind the decision of many of her customers to leave Hazleton and even causes some in town to wonder if she is illegal.

MARIA LOPEZ SCOTT: Before the ordinance, we made a lot of money. We had a lot of customers, the Hispanic people. Before, you come in my store, by this time, you be a lot of people here. They bought everything. Now, you see my store is empty. No people in here.

KWAME HOLMAN: But around Hazleton, there's no shortage of positive reviews for Mayor Barletta's ordinance, particularly among non-immigrant, longtime residents who say they don't want their tax dollars used to support illegal immigrants.

KATHLEEN HATT, Hazleton Resident: I'm really proud of the mayor for being pretty much the first one to start this.

HAZLETON RESIDENT: The ones that are coming in here illegally are making it bad for the ones that are actually here legal. So I don't know, I support him. You know, I'm glad that he did it.

KWAME HOLMAN: Rico Nuss and wife, Lori, have lived here for decades. They talked about the mayor's ordinance while watching their son get ready for Hazleton High's upcoming football season.

RICO NUSS, Hazleton Resident: I support the mayor 100 percent, because, going back to my grandmother and grandfather again, they were very, very proud that they became American citizens. My mom told me all about it, with the tears in the eyes and everything. And why should we demean that?

We're not saying we don't want you to be an American, but do it the right way. Do it legally. What part of "illegal" don't you understand?

LORI NUSS, Hazleton Resident: We have a lot of people from a lot of different races here, and that's to cover everyone. Whether they're illegal doesn't say that they have to be Hispanic or they have to be from Turkey, or Ireland, or Germany, or England. It's illegal. That's the bottom line to it. It's illegal.

Fighting the ordinance

Vic Walczak
American Civil Liberties Union
The Constitution gives exclusive power to regulate immigration to the United States Congress. This is a federal responsibility, and Hazleton simply cannot interfere with that. And that's what they're doing.

KWAME HOLMAN: But even before it becomes official, Hazleton's immigration ordinance has attracted legal challenge. Vic Walczak is an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.

VIC WALCZAK, American Civil Liberties Union: It is unconstitutional. We think it's a violation of equal protection to set up different standards for people because they may come from different countries. And one of, I think, our frustrations in the whole immigration debate and discussion of this ordinance is that nobody's thinking about the practical effect of how this is going to work.

KWAME HOLMAN: The ACLU, along with several other civil liberties groups, is suing the city of Hazleton to block the ordinance.

VIC WALCZAK: If you think about every municipality in the country passing their own standards for who is lawfully here and who isn't, you're going to have such a patchwork that it would make life in commerce impossible. And that's the reason that the Constitution gives exclusive power to regulate immigration to the United States Congress. This is a federal responsibility, and Hazleton simply cannot interfere with that. And that's what they're doing.

A spreading trend

Dr. Agapito Lopez
Business leader
I think there's a preemptive attack on the immigrants. I think they are not counting on Congress, they are not counting on the federal government, and I think they don't have the right to be immigration agents.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the effort in Congress to rewrite immigration laws for the first time in 20 years has been stalled for months. And several cities are moving ahead with legislation modeled after Mayor Barletta's.

And three cites -- Costa Mesa, California; Valley Park, Missouri; and Riverside, New Jersey -- recently adopted their own immigration laws. For his part, Mayor Barletta said he had to do something.

MAYOR LOU BARLETTA: I cannot tell these people here in this city, "I'm sorry what's happening here, but there's nothing I can do about it. They're working on it in Washington. They're talking about building walls." And these people don't want to hear that. They elected me to protect them.

DR. AGAPITO LOPEZ: I think there's a preemptive attack on the immigrants. I think they are not counting on Congress, they are not counting on the federal government, and I think they don't have the right to be immigration agents.

KWAME HOLMAN: As for store owner Maria Lopez Scott...

MARIA LOPEZ SCOTT: I have to leave. Maybe in a few months, two or three months, I have to close it out and move to the other city.

KWAME HOLMAN: Even if Hazleton's new ordinance doesn't survive a court challenge, it already may have achieved one consequence intended by the mayor: to get some illegal immigrants to leave town.

JIM LEHRER: An update. This afternoon, in response to the lawsuit against the immigration ordinance, the town agreed to delay its enforcement and said it will work on a replacement measure that can survive a court challenge.