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Nation's legal eyes focus on city's immigration laws

Trial could determine the constitutionality of measures passed in Hazleton, Pa.

March 13, 2007|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

SCRANTON, PA. — The nation's first trial debating the rights of local governments to curtail illegal immigration began Monday in federal court, with officials from the city of Hazleton, Pa., defending laws that would make life difficult for undocumented residents and civil liberties lawyers charging that the measures unfairly targeted Latinos.

Lawyers defending the Hazleton ordinances argued that the city wanted to take control of immigration law because the federal government had failed to deal with problems caused by undocumented residents.

They said illegal immigrants brought crime and gangs to the community of 31,000 residents, drained funding for public schools and caused longer waits in hospital emergency rooms.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups that filed the lawsuit against Hazleton claimed the city's laws discriminated against Latino residents, no matter their legal status. The ordinances conflict with the federal government's authority to regulate immigration, the lawyers argued.

Politicians and immigration organizations say the outcome of the Hazleton trial could affect dozens of communities nationwide that are trying to enact similar laws.

"We're no longer fighting for only Hazleton," said Mayor Louis J. Barletta, who has fiercely defended the ordinances. Standing outside the courtroom Monday, he said, "We're fighting for cities across the country."

The City Council of the former coal-mining town northwest of Philadelphia approved ordinances last year that would fine landlords who rented to illegal immigrants, deny business permits to companies that employed them, and require residents to register with the city to prove their citizenship.

Hazleton's Illegal Immigration Relief Act was set to take effect Nov. 1, 2006, but U.S. District Judge James M. Munley barred enforcement until a trial could determine its constitutionality.

During Monday's opening arguments before Munley, the lead lawyer for Hazleton, Kris Kobach, said Barletta backed the measures to protect the city he served and loved, and because the federal government was not keeping illegal immigrants out.

Kobach, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law and a onetime immigration advisor to former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, said Hazleton's crime rate jumped with the influx of undocumented residents.

Its population increased by about 10,000 in five years, most of whom were Latinos. Supporters of the ordinances said Hazleton was transformed from a peaceful place to a city coping with illegal residents, some of them members of street gangs.

"Something had changed with a wave of illegal immigrants in recent years," Kobach said. "Hazleton had seen new criminals and new crimes."

Illegal immigrants accounted for 30% of the city's drug arrests from 2005 to 2006, Kobach said. Hazleton police arrested 19 undocumented residents in 2006 on charges of murder, rape, assault and dealing drugs, he said. From 2000 to 2004, he said, police arrested three illegal immigrants on such charges.

New residents also drained Hazleton's public school and health systems, Kobach said. Spending on programs for English as a second language soared from $500 in 2000 to $1.1 million in 2006, he said.

And the average wait in emergency rooms climbed to more than five hours, he said.

In opening arguments, Witold J. Walczak, lead lawyer for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, called the Hazleton situation "Two tales of a city," with the mayor and elected officials on one side and Latino residents on the other.

After the laws were passed, Latino residents -- legal and illegal -- "no longer felt safe in Hazleton," he said. "Their businesses failed and they started moving out."

Agapito Lopez, a Hazleton resident and community organizer from Puerto Rico, testified that he received hate mail after the ordinances passed. The town that once embraced its Latino residents, he said, became divided and unfriendly. He said legal residents who contributed to Hazleton's economy suffered.

Jose Luis Lechuga, 44, a legal resident who came to the U.S. from Mexico, testified that he moved to Hazleton in 1991. In 2000, he opened Lechuga's Mexican Products, a grocery store that sold tortillas, cheese, chorizo and chiles. As more Latinos came to town, he added merchandise, long-distance calling cards and greeting cards celebrating quinceaneras.

After the illegal immigrant ordinances passed, he said, it became impossible to stay in business. Lechuga closed the store in February.

"I began to see a decrease," Lechuga said through an interpreter. "My people commented and told me they did not want to come in to Hazleton because they didn't feel safe and they didn't want to have problems."

Hazleton lawyers said Lechuga was struggling financially before the laws were approved, and many of his customers might have been illegal immigrants who were deported after raids by law enforcement officials.

Outside court, Angel Medina, president of the Pennsylvania Statewide Latino Coalition, a plaintiff in the case, said Hazleton's ordinances had led to racial profiling of all Latino groups. Children had been taunted.

He said he had heard from people nationwide who were anxiously awaiting the trial's outcome. He said the case would influence how Latinos were treated in many cities.

"We're all aware of the impact this will have," he said.

The trial is expected to last two weeks.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported Monday that a Missouri state judge ruled that ordinances adopted last year in a St. Louis suburb that are nearly identical to those in Hazleton had violated state law.

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erika.hayasaki@latimes.com

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