Pa. City Puts Illegal Immigrants on Notice

Hispanic demonstrators outside the Hazleton, Pa., city hall protest a law that makes it illegal to rent to or hire an illegal immigrant.
Hispanic demonstrators outside the Hazleton, Pa., city hall protest a law that makes it illegal to rent to or hire an illegal immigrant. (By Rick Smith -- Associated Press)
By Michael Powell and Michelle García
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 22, 2006

HAZLETON, Pa. -- An immigrant's grandson, Louis J. Barletta, the mayor of this once-sleepy hill city, leans forward behind the desk in his corner office and with an easy smile confides his goal.

Barletta wants to make Hazleton "the toughest place on illegal immigrants in America."

"What I'm doing here is protecting the legal taxpayer of any race," said the dapper 50-year-old mayor, sweeping his hands toward the working-class city outside. "And I will get rid of the illegal people. It's this simple: They must leave ."

Last month, in a raucous meeting, the mayor and City Council passed the Illegal Immigration Relief Act. (Barletta wore a bulletproof vest because, he says, Hazleton is menaced by a surge in crime committed by illegal immigrants.) The act imposes a $1,000-per-day fine on any landlord who rents to an illegal immigrant, and it revokes for five years the business license of any employer who hires one.

The act also declares English to be the city's official language. Employees are forbidden to translate documents into another language without official authorization.

The law doesn't take effect for another month. But the Republican mayor already sees progress. "I see illegal immigrants picking up and leaving -- some Mexican restaurants say business is off 75 percent," Barletta says. "The message is out there."

So another fire is set in the nation's immigration wars, which as often burn most fiercely not in the urban megalopolises but in small cities and towns, where for the first time in generations immigrants have made their presence felt. In these corners, the mayors, councils and cops cobble together ambitious plans -- some of which are legally dubious -- to turn back illegal immigration.

Last year two New Hampshire police chiefs began arresting illegal immigrants for trespassing, a tactic the courts tossed out. On New York's Long Island, the Suffolk County Legislature is expected to adopt a proposal next month prohibiting contractors from hiring illegal immigrants.

Hazleton has upped that ante, and four neighboring municipalities in Pennsylvania and Riverside, N.J., already have passed identical ordinances. Seven more cities, from Allentown, Pa., to Palm Beach, Fla., are debating similar legislation.

"The ideas that these things are happening spontaneously would be mistaken," said Devin Burghart, who tracks the immigration wars for the nonprofit Center for New Community in Chicago. "What is driving folks is fear of change and changing demographics."

German, Italian and Japanese television crews have interviewed Barletta. He has received 9,000 favorable e-mails and has raised thousands of dollars for the city's legal defense on a Web site called Small Town Defenders. (Two staffers from Sen. Rick Santorum's staff prepared the site; Santorum, a Republican who is in a tight reelection race, has pushed for immigration crackdowns.)

But Barletta and the council just might walk off a legal cliff. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund have sued to block the ordinance, saying it could ensnare many who are here legally.

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