Hispanics Flee Pa. Town Before Crackdown

The Associated Press
Tuesday, October 31, 2006; 8:31 PM

HAZLETON, Pa. -- Elvis Soto's variety store used to make money. But few customers have been walking through his door lately, and his merchandise _ calling cards, cell phones, car stereos, clothing _ is collecting dust on the shelves.

With bills mounting, Soto might have to take another job to stay afloat financially, and may even close the store.

On Wednesday, a tough, first-of-its-kind law targeting illegal immigrants was to take effect in this small hillside city in northeastern Pennsylvania. A federal judge on Tuesday blocked the measure for at least two weeks, but the evidence suggests many Hispanics _ illegal or otherwise _ have already left.

That, in turn, has hobbled the city's Hispanic business district, where some shops have closed and others are struggling to stay open.

"Before, it was a nice place," said Soto, 27, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic a decade ago. "Now, we have a war against us. I am legal but I feel the pressure also."

The ordinance, approved by City Council in September, imposes fines on landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and denies business permits to companies that give them jobs. The law empowers the city to investigate written complaints about a person's immigration status, using a federal database.

Mayor Lou Barletta, chief proponent of the new law, contends illegal immigrants have brought drugs, crime and gangs, overwhelming police and municipal budgets. He announced the crackdown in June, a month after two illegal immigrants from the Dominican Republic were charged in a fatal shooting.

At Isabel's Gifts, owner Isabel Rubio said business is so bad that she and her husband have put their house up for sale, moved into an apartment above their store and started dipping into their savings.

"I am in a lot of stress right now," said Rubio, 50, a Colombian who moved to Hazleton 24 years ago. "Every day, we hope to have a good day."

Opponents sued on Monday to block the law and a companion measure, saying they trample on the federal government's exclusive power to regulate immigration.

U.S. District Judge James Munley ruled that landlords, tenants and businesses that cater to Hispanics faced "irreparable harm" from the laws and issued a temporary restraining order. He also said the city offered "only vague generalizations" about crime caused by illegal immigrants.

The judge's order expires Nov. 14. He planned to schedule a hearing on the plaintiffs' motion for a temporary injunction.

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