HAZLETON, Pa. — In a stinging rebuttal to anti-immigrant forces, a federal court has struck down this city’s ordinances against undocumented immigrants.
The decision is expected to have wider repercussions. But Latino residents here, while happy over the ruling, say the ordinances have already poisoned the atmosphere against them.
The ordinances would have fined business owners for renting, hiring or “providing goods and services” to undocumented immigrants. They also prohibited providing city services in any language but English, even to citizens and legal residents.
César Perales, president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the groups who filed the lawsuit challenging the ordinances, called the July 26 decision “historic” and said it “sets a precedent for the 21st century.”
U.S. District Court Judge James Munley ruled that the ordinances were invalid because enforcement of immigration laws is a federal government responsibility. Munley also ruled that, contrary to what Hazleton city attorneys maintained, undocumented immigrants are “persons” whose rights are protected under the Constitution. He emphasized that “persons who enter this country without legal authorization are not stripped immediately of their rights because of this single illegal act.”
Several hundred similar city, county and state measures have been introduced around the country, and some have passed.
While this verdict applies only to Hazleton, other courts are expected to look to the legal thinking behind Munley’s decision in deciding those cases.
Those filing the suit here included the ACLU and several immigrant rights organizations and law firms, acting on behalf of individual residents, business owners and organizations. Four of the 11 plaintiffs were listed as John Doe 1, 3, 7 and 5 because of their status as undocumented immigrants.
City attorneys attempted to force disclosure of the John Does’ identities, to compel them to drop out of the case or be subjected to possible arrest by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Munley agreed to let them proceed anonymously citing an earlier decision permitting anonymity in cases where there may be a danger to the plaintiff.
Munley noted that Dr. Agapito López, a Hazleton Latino leader who was not a plaintiff in the case, testified during the trial that he had received hate mail directed at him and at Anna Arias, a Latina resident who serves on the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs.
At a rally supporting Hazleton’s Republican Mayor Louis Barletta, who introduced the ordinances, a reporter for a local Spanish-language newspaper was escorted out by police after he was threatened by people in the crowd. The Ku Klux Klan in New Jersey had announced that they would be in Hazleton to support the mayor.
In introducing the ordinances, Barletta blamed the undocumented for what he said was an increase in crime with a city police force that was stretched to the limit. At the trial, he admitted that he himself had cut the police force when he took office.
In many towns that have introduced or considered a Hazleton-style ordinance, “walking while Latino has become a crime,” said Foster Maer, Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Educational Fund senior counsel on the case.
María, an undocumented Mexican living here, agreed. “I feel afraid. I don’t feel very free to go out walking in the streets.” She said she stays home “with my baby, who was born here.”
Julian Figueroa, working in his brother’s grocery store, Jazmin Market, said he was glad the ordinances were overruled, “even though they don’t affect me” as a Puerto Rican. “Many Hispanics have left because of the harassment” from local police and residents, he said, although he noted that “not all of them are racist.”
Ramón and Patricia Batista, among the many Latinos who have moved to Hazleton and opened new businesses, revitalizing what was a depressed area, were happy with the court’s decision.
Ramón said he expected the town would get back to normal and noted that he is seeing new customers in his restaurant.
The mayor “has lost some strength because of the court’s decision,” he said. “But immigrants still have to go on fighting.”
Ana Cintrón, a Dominican immigrant, was considering moving back to the New York area despite the court victory. “When I first got here I liked it here a lot. But I have seen that they don’t want us immigrants here. They don’t attack just the undocumented, but all immigrants,” she said.
“Nevertheless, we have made this place. Everywhere you go you see grocery stores and businesses and it’s because of us, the immigrants,” she said, as her Mexican husband nodded his head in agreement.
Francisco and Jesús, both undocumented, are also considering leaving. Francisco said the local police were harassing people “because we are not white but brown-skinned.” He said he was tired of “gross comments” by white residents.
“We are going to another place where they will treat us better,” he said.
Jesús added, “All we did was come here to have a better life.”
Expressing hope for “a new initiative” for immigration reform that will benefit immigrants, he said, “We came to work.”