After a nine-day trial in which civil rights and civil liberties groups challenged a Hazleton, Pa., city ordinance that critics say scapegoats and demonizes immigrants, city officials appeared to fail in their courtroom defense of the law last week.

Hazleton officials claimed they need the ordinance to combat a rise in violent crime they said is attributable to undocumented immigrants in their city. But at the trial they were unable to provide any credible statistical evidence that this is the case.

Both sides have until May to file written arguments, and a decision in the case is expected in the weeks thereafter.

The case was brought before the federal court by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDEF), the American Civil Liberties Union and others on behalf 11 Hazleton residents and several community organizations.

The ordinance, adopted by Hazleton’s City Council last summer, fines businesses and landlords $1,000 a day for hiring, renting or selling to the undocumented, and withdraws their licenses to do business. The ordinance also outlaws the use of any language other than English for conducting city business.

Opponents of the ordinance say it is racist, puts an undue burden on small businesses and is pre-empted by federal law.

The ordinance, which has been blocked from being enforced by a federal injunction until a verdict comes down, has been amended multiple times, prompting Federal Judge James M. Munley in Scranton to query “which ordinance” he is to rule on.

Because, under the ordinance, businesses must have proof that those they do business with are legal residents, it makes it illegal for them to have dealings with those who are in the process of getting their immigrant status normalized. In effect, the ordinance would make it illegal to rent, hire or sell to people who have lost their permanent residency or citizenship documentation. Some of the plaintiffs are citizens and permanent residents.

Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta claims that an increase in criminal activities, which he says are caused by undocumented immigrants, has put a strain on the city’s police department. At the same time, he admits that he got rid of half of the police officers when he was first elected mayor.

The city’s own records show that undocumented immigrants have committed only 20 crimes in the last five years. The population of the city has grown from 23,000, with 4.5 percent being Latino, to over 30,000 today. Estimates put the current Hispanic population at about 30 per cent.

This influx of Latinos has spurred economic and job growth as the newcomers set up businesses in what used to be an economically depressed area. Local Latino leader Dr. Agapito López said the area was “a ghost town” before 2000. Even the mayor admits that the city went from having a budget deficit to a surplus during this time. During his first term in 2000, Barletta said, “the city was on the verge of bankruptcy.”

PRLDEF President César Perales said in a press release, “Day after day, the evidence at trial has made one thing perfectly clear: that the mayor has engaged in the grossest form of bigotry, unfairly blaming all Latino immigrants for all the city’s problems.”

Many think Barletta’s goals are political. Though he said that the only political job he is interested in is being mayor, he admitted meeting with the National Republican Congressional Committee in February.

Barletta, a Republican, ran for Congress against incumbent Democratic Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski in 2002.

jacruz @ pww.org

Comments

comments

MOST POPULAR