HAZLETON, Pa. – Illegal immigrants seeking to make a home in this northeastern Pennsylvania city could face barriers to finding a home and job after the city council passed one of the nation's strictest ordinances to fight illegal immigration.
City documents would be printed in English, landlords would face $1,000 fines for each illegal immigrant found renting their properties and business who employ illegal immigrants wouldn't be granted licenses.
The ordinance, designed to make the city one of the most hostile in the country for illegal immigrants, passed on a 4-to-1 vote after two hours of passionate debate.
"The illegal citizens, I would recommend they leave," said Mayor Lou Barletta, who said he wore a bulletproof vest to the vote as a precaution because the issue was emotionally charged.
The measure has divided the former coal town about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia and thrust the 31,000-population city to the fore of the national debate on illegal immigration. After the vote, hundreds of people on both sides of the issue congregated outside City Hall, separated by a line of police officers brought in anticipation of any trouble.
Barletta proposed the Illegal Immigration Relief Act last month as a response to what he said were Hazleton's problems with violent crime, crowded schools, hospital costs and the demand for services. Opponents argued it was divisive and possibly illegal, but supporters argued illegal immigrants' growing numbers have damaged the quality of life in this northeastern Pennsylvania city.
"What you see here tonight, really, is a city that wants to take back what America has given it," Barletta said.
Outside City Hall, about people gathered with opponents of the measure, some with signs that read "Bias," separated by a line of police from supporters, some waving American flags.
Anna Arias asked the council, "Are any of us ready to support U.S. citizens born of someone who is undocumented?" Several people in the audience responded, "Yes!"
She warned the council that approving the ordinance would make Hazleton "the first Nazi city in the country."
The ordinance adopted at the meeting had been extensively amended from an earlier draft; one change would deny a license to any business that provides goods or services to an illegal immigrant. City solicitor Christopher B. Slusser said the provision would likely be invoked only against business people who knowingly violated it, and the city would deal with violators "on a case-by-case basis."
The number of Hispanic residents in Hazleton has increased dramatically in the past six years. City officials acknowledge they do not know how many are illegal immigrants, whom Barletta has blamed for higher crime rates, failing schools and a diminished quality of life.
In a letter sent to Barletta earlier this week, attorneys with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund threatened to sue on the grounds that the ordinance infringes upon the federal government's power to regulate immigration.
Other municipalities across the country also have considered acting to address illegal immigration. Ordinances similar to the Hazleton measure have been proposed in the Florida communities of Palm Bay and Avon Park and the California towns of Escondido and San Bernardino.
Carolina Taveras, a 30-year-old naturalized citizen from the Dominican Republic who moved to Hazleton from New York City a year ago, said the mayor's proposal has made her feel unwelcome.
A few doors down from where Taveras was getting her hair done at a downtown beauty salon that caters to Hispanic women, restaurant owner George Giannakouros said he is sympathetic to Barletta's approach.
"I agree with the mayor, there is a problem," Giannakouros said. "I work at my business at night, I like to feel safe."