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Pennsylvania city immigration law is in judge's hands

His ruling on Hazleton may have repercussions across the country.

March 23, 2007|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

SCRANTON, PA. — Attorneys for Hazleton, Pa., told a federal judge Thursday that the town's efforts to crack down on illegal residents would reinforce U.S. immigration policies, but civil liberties lawyers argued the issue should be left in the hands of Congress instead of local governments.

The arguments closed the nation's first trial testing cities' right to enforce local laws against illegal immigration.

U.S. District Judge James M. Munley's decision, which is not expected for at least two months, could set a national precedent for about 70 other communities that have or are considering similar measures.

The Illegal Immigration Relief Act approved by Hazleton City Council last year seeks to penalize landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and businesses that employ them. Munley put enforcement on hold for the challenge to its constitutionality; otherwise it would have taken effect Nov. 1, 2006.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups filed the suit against Hazleton.

The trial began March 12.

Hazleton's ordinances were intended to protect residents from rising crime, gangs and a drain on social services caused by illegal immigrants, said lead Hazleton attorney Kris W. Kobach. Its act supports federal prohibitions on harboring or hiring illegal immigrants, he said.

Congress expects states and local governments to help the federal government detain and deport illegal immigrants, but the federal government has not done enough to stop illegal immigration, Kobach said.

"How can we participate if we don't know" who is in the country illegally? he asked. One Hazleton provision would require people to register with the city to prove their citizenship.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said illegal immigration was a complex issue that, if left to local governments, could harm international relations and the U.S. economy.

"This is not only about Hazleton," said Witold J. Walczak, lead lawyer for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "They want other towns to follow Hazleton's lead."

The federal government considers whether an illegal immigrant was a victim of human trafficking or political persecution, or whether they have family responsibility in the U.S., he said, whereas "Hazleton's ordinances consider none of this."

"If they decide you're illegal, you can't live or work in Hazleton."

Walczak asked the judge to review two recent cases similar to Hazleton's.

In Missouri, a state judge ruled this month that Missouri law did not authorize two Valley Park ordinances to punish businesses and landlords hiring or renting to illegal immigrants. And in California, Escondido passed an ordinance in October to fine landlords renting to illegal immigrants, but withdrew it after a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order.

After the trial ended, a plaintiff's attorney with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, Foster Maer, said that if Hazleton's ordinances were enforced, there would be "complete chaos, with every town having its own foreign policy."

Maer said he felt hopeful that Munley understood that Hazleton's ordinances would worsen a "racially divisive atmosphere" in which Latinos -- in the country illegally or not -- felt targeted by law enforcement.

During the trial, legal Latino residents of Hazleton testified they had received hate mail or had been discriminated against since the ordinances were introduced. Others said Latino residents had fled the city as a result.

Mayor Louis J. Barletta, who has become a national icon for towns trying to curtail illegal immigration, said he felt confident Hazleton would prevail.

If not, he said, the city is prepared to take the fight to the Supreme Court.

"I'm proud to be defending the United States' citizens and workers," Barletta said after the trial ended.

A former coal-mining town northwest of Philadelphia, Hazleton saw its population increase by about 50%, to 31,000, in five years, mostly because of Latinos who left New York after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In the last two years, illegal immigrants have accounted for an increasing proportion of the city's drug arrests and suspects in more serious crimes, including assault and murder, Kobach said, citing law enforcement officials' testimony.

New residents have also strained Hazleton's public school and health systems, Kobach said, referring to local officials' testimony about increases in spending on English as a second language and in emergency-room waits.

Walczak said most illegal immigrants came to Hazleton with "hopes and dreams to make a better life."

They raised children, paid taxes and contributed to the revitalization of the town that had been struggling financially, he said. In the last three years, he said, Hazleton's property values have increased.

In his closing arguments, Walczak accused Hazleton's attorneys of exaggerating the crime problem.

Of 8,500 crimes committed in Hazleton in six years, he said, the city can only prove that 20 were committed by illegal immigrants.

Hazleton, he said, "is trying to demoralize illegal immigrants."

erika.hayasaki@latimes.com

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