Civil liberties groups filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Hazleton, Pa., on Aug. 15, challenging a city ordinance that makes it illegal to sell goods or services, rent to, hire or help undocumented immigrants. The ordinance’s “English only” section declares “English the official language of the city,” making the use of any other language for city business illegal.

The lawsuit, filed by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania on behalf of 11 Hazleton residents and business owners and four organizations, asks the courts to declare the ordinance unconstitutional, and seeks financial compensation for the plaintiffs.

The groups offered to drop the suit if the Hazleton city council would revoke the ordinance and agree that it would pass no other ordinances based on a person’s immigration status. The city council did neither of these at its Aug. 15 meeting.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Scranton, Pa., says the ordinance illegally “infringes on the federal government’s authority over immigration.” It notes that under the ordinance “some immigrants whose status may be unresolved are deemed to be ‘illegal aliens’ in Hazleton,” even though these immigrants are “lawfully in this country under federal law.”

The suit further says that business owners would have to have proof of a person’s immigration status to avoid acting illegally or otherwise would have to avoid doing business with immigrants and even U.S.-born people. This would contradict federal and state anti-discrimination laws. Further, the suit says, businesses might have to use “improper gauges such as color of skin and foreign accents.”

The complaint highlights a number of problems that the ordinance could cause for U.S. citizens, legal residents and undocumented immigrants who are not subject to deportation because they are normalizing their immigrant status.

Two plaintiffs in the suit, Pedro Lozano and Humberto Hernández, say they have lost tenants because of the ordinance. They also say they have no way of knowing “how to determine whether an individual is an ‘illegal alien’” under the ordinance. Because of this, they could unknowingly rent to someone in violation of the ordinance and thus be fined and lose their business licenses for five years. Other plaintiffs say they have lost business due to the “inhospitable climate” in Hazleton.

Hazleton Mayor Louis Barletta admits that business has declined in the city, but attributes that to undocumented immigrants leaving. Hazleton, formerly a coal and textile town, has enjoyed an economic resurgence in the last five years with the arrival of new immigrants who have set up businesses there.

A number of the plaintiffs are in the process of obtaining legal immigration status but would fall under the ordinance’s “illegal aliens” definition. Two other plaintiffs, both from Italy, are legal residents but have lost their “green cards,” making it impossible to prove their status until new ones are issued.

The plaintiffs also include a legal permanent resident high school student from the Dominican Republic and a U.S. citizen born in Puerto Rico, who cannot obtain city services because they are not fluent in English.

The suit emphasizes that in Pennsylvania, “public services historically have been available in their native languages to speakers of German, Polish, Russian, Yiddish, Italian, Hungarian and a variety of other languages.” It cites an 1837 law that “required school instruction in both German and English.”

Hazleton Mayor Barletta, who introduced the ordinance, “speaks Italian at home,” according to a former Hazleton resident.

Barletta introduced the ordinance after a number of incidents involving immigrants, both undocumented and legal residents. Yet he admits to having no evidence of increased crime because of undocumented immigration. According to the State Police, arrests in Hazleton actually dropped by 13 percent from 2000 to 2005.

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