Pennsylvania Town Defends Illegal Immigrant Crackdown in Court

There is no evidence to back up the claim by Hazleton's mayor that illegal immigrants are destroying the quality of life in the former Pennsylvania mining town, a civil rights attorney told a judge Monday at the start of the first federal trial on local efforts to curb illegal immigration.

"Even if illegal immigrants really are wreaking havoc on Hazleton, that doesn't change the legal analysis" that the former coal town's crackdown on illegal immigrants usurps the federal government's role, said Witold "Vic" Walczak, the Pennsylvania legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Last summer, Hazleton officials passed the city's Illegal Immigration Relief Act, imposing fines on landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and denying business permits to companies that employ them. Another measure requires tenants to register with City Hall.

Hispanic groups and the ACLU sued, contending the measures are unconstitutional.

The non-jury trial, which is expected to last two weeks, comes as dozens of cities and communities across the United States have followed Hazleton's lead, with many accusing the government of inaction on the divisive issue.The U.S. Congress last year began debating competing immigration bills, but neither was approved by the entire Congress before it adjourned and Democrats came to power following the November elections.

One of the first witnesses testified that the ordinances inspired a "wave of hate" in a city where Latinos and non-Latinos previously had gotten along very well.

Dr. Agapito Lopez, 63, a retired ophthalmologist and Hispanic leader in Hazleton, testified that he received hate mail and his neighbors were no longer friendly toward him.

While critics have construed the town's efforts as xenophobic and discriminatory, an attorney representing Hazleton argued that the northeast Pennsylvania town has welcomed immigrants for more than a century, including Hispanics who began arriving in the 1980s and 1990s.

But after 2000, "something had changed. Hazleton had seen new criminals and new sorts of crime," said Kobach, an immigration adviser under former Attorney General John Ashcroft who is also a University of Missouri law professor.

The city had one murder in 1994 and did not have another until 2001, when a killing was allegedly committed by an illegal immigrant, he said. Five more murders were committed in 2005 and 2006, allegedly all by illegal immigrants, Kobach said.

In court papers, Hazleton officials said illegal immigrants have committed at least 47 crimes since last spring, consuming much of the city's police overtime budget. Illegal immigrants were the subject of one-third of all drug arrests in 2005, and they have driven up the costs of health care and education, the city said.

In response to the ACLU argument, Kobach said Congress had clearly stated its intent that states and municipalities can help the federal government enforce immigration law. He noted that in 1996, Congress required them to determine the immigration status of anyone seeking public benefits.

The judge barred enforcement of the Hazleton immigration measures pending the outcome of the trial.

"This is the day we've been waiting for for a long time," Mayor Lou Barletta said outside the federal courthouse Monday. "Small cities can no longer sit back and wait for the federal government to do something."

Under the city's measures, race and ethnicity could be used as a basis for making a complaint, as long as they are not "solely or primarily" the factor — leading the plaintiffs to claim the city was sanctioning racism. In court Monday, Kobach announced that City Council planned to remove those three words, making any complaint even partially based on race or ethnicity automatically invalid.