HAZLETON, Pa. – A mayor whose get-tough policies on illegal immigrants attracted national attention years before the immigration debate shifted to Arizona resigned Tuesday to take a job in Congress.
Lou Barletta, who was elected to the U.S. House last month, left the Hazleton mayor's office at noon. He had led the northeastern Pennsylvania city for more than a decade.
"This is a bittersweet moment for me," said Barletta, 54, addressing a City Council chambers packed with family, friends and city workers. "No matter where I go, whether it's Washington or beyond, I will never forget where I came from."
Barletta did not address his stalled four-year effort to drive illegal immigrants from Hazleton, but he told The Associated Press afterward that he is proud of the effort.
"I never dreamt that it would strike the nerve that it struck in America," he said. "I'm very proud that City Council had the courage to stand with me, and I believe we brought this issue to the forefront way back in 2006."
Barletta's successor is expected to be City Council President Joseph Yanuzzi, who said Tuesday that illegal immigration continues to be a problem in the city of more than 30,000. Yanuzzi said he will pick up where Barletta left off.
"Our budget is for people who pay their taxes," he said. "The illegals are not paying their taxes, their fair share."
Barletta argued that illegal immigrants brought drugs, crime and gangs to the city and overwhelmed police, schools and hospitals. The Republican mayor pushed a pair of immigration measures after two illegal immigrants were charged in a fatal shooting.
The city's Illegal Immigration Relief Act, which spurred copycat measures around the country, would fine landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and deny business permits to companies that give them jobs. A companion measure would require prospective tenants to register with City Hall and pay for a rental permit.
Neither law has been enforced, pending the outcome of a legal challenge that could make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The city asked the high court last week to decide whether the laws — which lower courts have decided are unconstitutional — usurped the federal government's exclusive power to regulate immigration.
Appeals courts are split over the issue of whether state and local governments may act on their own to curb illegal immigration.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court heard arguments on an Arizona law that threatens to take away the licenses of businesses that knowingly hire workers who are in the country illegally. A second, more controversial Arizona immigration enforcement law, which requires police officers who are enforcing other laws to question people they suspect are in the country illegally, also faces a legal challenge.
Barletta, who defeated 26-year incumbent Rep. Paul Kanjorski on his third try, said he will continue advocating his view that the federal government needs to get serious about immigration enforcement.
"Hopefully, my perspective will get the attention of others in Congress, and as a nation we'll be able to do something about the problem of illegal immigration," he said. "We're seeing it escalate, especially in the state of Arizona and the southern states, where many of the problems in northern Mexico are spilling now."
Barletta, who focused his campaign message jobs and the economy, also stressed that immigration "is only one issue of the many issues I hope to work on in Congress."
Barletta has raised more than $500,000 through his Small Town Defenders website to defray the city's legal expenses as it fights a legal challenge brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups. He said the city has also spent about $7,000 in taxpayer money, but hopes to recoup from private donors.
City Council will meet Wednesday to pick the new mayor — widely expected to be Yanuzzi. The appointee will fill Barletta's unexpired third term. The post will be up for grabs again next year.