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City Vents Anger at Illegal Immigrants

Hazleton, Pa., creates one of the strictest laws in the U.S., polarizing its whites and Latinos.

July 14, 2006|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

HAZLETON, Pa. — Standing outside City Hall in the gathering dark, Norman Tarantino felt, for once, that he was lucky to live in Hazleton.

Most of his friends had moved away, over the years, convinced that the old coal city's best days were behind it. But as of Thursday night, Tarantino said, Hazleton once again has something to be proud of: It is the most hostile environment in America for illegal immigrants.

Not 20 feet away stood Daniel Jorge, a Dominican immigrant who moved his family to Hazleton last year after 25 years in New York City. Jorge, a real estate agent, was wondering how he would break the news to his wife, who had been enchanted with the small-town friendliness she found in Hazleton, a small city in the hills 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

"I'm sad. I loved it here," Jorge said. He gazed at the police officers lined up in the middle of Church Street, separating crowds of white and Latino demonstrators. "I never in my wildest dreams thought I would see this here in this city."

By a vote of 4 to 1, Hazleton's City Council on Thursday approved the Illegal Immigration Relief Act, which imposes severe penalties on landlords who rent space to illegal immigrants, suspends the licenses of businesses that employ them, and declares English the city's official language.

The ordinance has brought celebrity status to Hazleton's mayor, Louis J. Barletta, and has prompted a ripple of proposed new laws in neighboring communities.

In Florida, the communities of Avon Park and Palm Bay will vote on similar laws, as will the city of Escondido in California.

The law has also attracted a legal challenge from the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, which has promised to sue the city on the grounds that the ordinance unconstitutionally infringes on federal jurisdiction over immigration.

Local Latino activists warn that the vote could mark an ugly turning point in Hazleton, whose Latino minority has grown over the last decade to constitute about 30% of the population.

"What I worry is that this will be a pretext for people to allow their racist feelings to show," said David Vaida, an attorney in Allentown, Pa., who signed the legal challenge to Barletta. "It will allow people to take that deep, dark side of them and let it come out. It will pit neighbor against neighbor, and then the city will be worse off."

But the mood in City Hall was upbeat Thursday; white residents exploded into applause when Barletta strode into the chamber, wearing a bulletproof vest under his suit jacket. They yelled "Yes!" when a local Latino leader asked whether they would deport U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants, and cheered again when City Council President Joe Yannuzzi compared illegal immigrants to burglars.

"If I come home and find someone in my home, is he just an unwanted guest? Must I keep him there and take care of him?" he asked. "I say he has committed a crime, and should be treated like a criminal."

Under the new law -- which is a modified version of a ballot initiative proposed in San Bernardino -- anyone seeking to rent a dwelling in the city will have to apply to the city for a residency license, and submit to an investigation of citizenship status. Landlords found renting to people without licenses will be fined $1,000 a day. Business owners found hiring, renting property to, or providing goods and services to illegal immigrants will lose their business permit for five years on a first offense and 10 years on a second.

Barletta, whose grandfather hauled coal with a horse and wagon, said Thursday's vote was the culmination of years of complaints from constituents.

"There's no place for me to hide in a small city," he said. "I get it in the grocery store, I get it at the lunch counter, when I get my morning coffee, when I'm pumping gas.

"People are begging me, because we are losing the one asset that this city has to offer -- our quality of life."

Hazleton was a shrinking and mostly white city when Latinos began to arrive.

Older residents reminisce about the miners who emerged every evening from the "40 shaft" and streamed down Diamond Avenue past the Italian bars -- Andruzzi's, Fidule's, Yannuzzi's -- while the smell of meatballs hung in the air. People lived in tight ethnic clusters -- Donegal Hill for the Irish immigrants and Nanny Goat Hill for the Italians.

The city reached its peak population in the 1940s, at 38,000, then began a steady decline as mining and textiles work disappeared. The 2000 census showed a population of 23,000, with a median age of 40.

Immigrants, flowing in from New York and New Jersey, changed that trajectory, bringing the city's population back up to between 30,000 and 31,000.

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