Hazleton: Immigration Debate's Battleground Town Suffers an Identity Crisis

Picturesque, it was not.

If you took a stroll down this small town’s main drag two decades ago, you would have encountered a virtual ghost town. Blighted storefronts, torn-up sidewalks and little foot traffic gave the impression of life during wartime, with people huddled inside waiting for the bombs to drop.

The nearby coal mines had closed up and the area’s major businesses shuttered their doors, leaving the town that once boasted 40,000 plus people after World War II with half that number by the turn of the millennium as an older generation died off and the town’s youth fled for better-paying jobs.

This northeastern Pennsylvania town lay in a state of slow decay, as well-maintained neo-colonial brick homes with groomed yards and screened-in porches sat on the same block as grime-encrusted, vinyl-sided homes with broken screens flapping in the breeze.

“It was real bad a couple of years ago,” said Angel Gonzalez, a local barber who works on Wyoming Street, Hazleton’s commercial hub. “Nobody wanted to come around here.”

Actually, a brave few did come. They saw untold opportunities.

Immigrants already in the country flocked here from places like New York and New Jersey, as well as new arrivals from distant lands such as the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Peru. They were drawn here by cheap rents, work in the area’s factories and a feeling it was a decent place to raise a family.

I just hope the ruling comes soon...This has been going on for years and we just need a decision so we can figure out what to do either way.

— Hazleton Mayor Joe Yannuzzi.

“I came here because of the quiet, and because my family said it was a good place to live,” said Julian Figuero, the owner of El Caribe Restaurant on Wyoming Street.

Leaning on the counter in his restaurant as two of his employees prepared a lunch of roasted chicken, beans, rice and plantains, Figuero explained that when he arrived in Hazleton, even the town’s busiest street was in shambles.

“Wyoming was a tough place, it had all kinds of problems,” Figuero said with a New York swagger he hasn’t lost even after 13 years in Hazleton. “It’s much better now.”

Signs of Latino culture are ubiquitous. Sazón Latino gives Figuero’s restaurant a run for its money for the town’s best roast chicken. Across the street from El Caribe sits La Ocoeña bakery. And a slew of Latino barber shops offer customers the sharpest coiffes.

And so with the evident demographic shift, formerly mostly white Hazleton began mirroring other parts of the country with the recent influx of Hispanic newcomers.

Money started flowing into Hazleton, long abandoned buildings took in new dwellers and the city saw its first population growth in decades. But not everybody welcomed the change with open arms.  For some locals, the population growth attracted the wrong kind of neighbor.

Increased crime levels, dismal job prospects, a failing city budget and xenophobic undercurrents dug a wedge between Hazleton’s immigrant community and residents born-and-bred in the Luzerne County town.

The immigrant influx ushered a slight crime increase, with undocumented immigrants being the top suspects in a brazen murder and a vicious rape of a 6-year old girl in 2006. While the murder charge was eventually dropped by the Luzerne County District Attorney for lack of evidence, Hazleton’s undermanned police force – the town currently has 36 officers on patrol – is still wary about new immigrants due in large part to the difficulty tracking them down if they evade arrest.

“We don’t have resources available to the city and the city police department to combat any of these crimes; illegal theft, illegal homicides, illegal aliens,” Hazleton Police Chief Frank DeAndrea said in an interview with Fox News Latino.

A thin man with a graying flat top and a police officer’s confident, somber demeanor, DeAndrea said that his force couldn’t even start to combat illegal immigration due to restraints imposed on him by federal law.

“If it’s not a felony and if they’re not wanted in another country for a felony offense, the federal government won’t even come to pick them up and deport them,” DeAndrea said.

‘A Lightning Rod’

Tensions came to a breaking point in 2006 when then-Mayor Lou Barletta introduced the Illegal Immigration Relief Act, a city ordinance that barred landlords from renting apartments to undocumented immigrants and business owners from hiring them.

“After making a trip to the capital, I realized that Washington wasn’t going to do anything to help us,” Barletta told Fox News Latino.

Barletta, a tall, solidly built career politician with a wide grin, strong jaw and deeply proud of his Italian-American heritage, made headlines across the country as the U.S.’s toughest man on undocumented immigrants, long before Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio claimed that title. Now a Pennsylvania congressman, Barletta has parlayed his prominence in the immigration debate to success at the ballot box.

“He’s a politician who knows how to get people fired up and win votes for his next election and that’s not right,” said Amilcar Arroyo, the owner of northeast Pennsylvania’s Spanish-language newspaper, Molinegocios USA, who has lived in Hazleton since 1989. “The undocumented immigrant issue was a way for him to gain prominence.”

Built on top of an old cemetery, Hazleton City Hall is a two-story, stone structure nearing its centennial. On the day of the council meeting on the ruling, the narrow streets were clogged with pro-immigrant demonstrators on one side and defenders of the ordinance on the other. The outnumbered Hazleton police officers in between tried to maintain order as insults flew and taunts were hurled across the street.

“It was a lightning rod,” Barletta said, referring to Hazleton’s new immigration ordinance. “I had no idea what was going to come after that.”

The ruling came down in favor of the ordinance, but celebration for its supporters was short lived.

Hazleton’s ordinance never took effect, as a judge invalidated the laws following challenges from the American Civil Liberties Union and a number of Latino advocacy groups. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling in 2010, seemingly putting the issue to rest for good.

In 2011, however, the ordinance was resurrected following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that affirmed a facet of Arizona’s immigration law punishing employers who hire undocumented immigrants.

“I just hope the ruling comes soon,” said current Hazleton Mayor, Joe Yannuzzi. “This has been going on for years and we just need a decision so we can figure out what to do either way.”

Since taking office in late 2010, Yannuzzi – a stocky man with a gravelly voice, a deeply-creased faced and a penchant for camel hair coats and orthotic shoes – has spent much of his time dealing with repercussions the proposed ordinance dealt the town.

The act’s current status may be in legal limbo, but the verdict from many pro-immigrant activists is already out in Hazleton.

With Yanuzzi supporting Barletta’s legislation and Latinos still feeling slighted, Hazleton has become stigmatized as an anti-immigrant, anti-Latino town. This label to many – including some members of the town’s Latino and immigrant communities – doesn’t fairly represent Hazleton.

“There are all kinds of people in Hazleton. People who like us, people who don’t care, racist people,” Figuero said. “But they’re getting used to us here. We’re not going anywhere.”

Coal Crackers

In the early 19th century, the discovery of anthracite coal in Hazleton’s nearby Beaver Meadows drew the interest of the country’s coal barons and railroad developers, who saw the region’s vast deposits as fuel for growing cities like New York and Philadelphia.

As the mines and surrounding towns grew, immigrants from Ireland and Germany began pouring into Hazleton, attracted to a surplus of jobs as laborers in the mines. Italian, Polish, Russian, Lithuanian, and Slovakian immigrants followed the first wave of immigrants from the 1860s to the 1920s.

“We had immigration from the points you would expect from Europe,” said Robert Parsons, a professor of Latin American studies at the University of Scranton, near Hazleton. “From Italy, from Ireland, from some of the Eastern European countries.”

In a pattern repeated throughout modern history, word of mouth carried the way — the first families to immigrate to Hazleton let their relatives and friends know that the town was a good place to live and enticed them to join them, Parsons added.

By the turn of last century, Hazleton became a patchwork of European immigrants, each with their own distinct neighborhoods and commercial zones. Italians, for example, moved their businesses to Wyoming Street, where they set-up restaurants, markets, clothing stores and other shops in similar fashion to what Latino immigrants are doing today.

In the post-war years, silk replaced coal as the town’s main export when the Duplan Silk Corporation opened up, producing in its heyday about 25 million yards a year.

But the silk industry couldn’t keep the town afloat economically by itself and, like other factory towns throughout the country, Hazleton’s workforce began drying up as jobs were outsourced overseas.

“The silk mill moved out at the same time the coal went down, so we ended up losing all of our industries,” Yannuzzi said. “From that point on, we kept losing population until about 2010.”

The Rebound

Hazleton was on the precipice of extinction when the new wave of immigrants arrived in the mid-2000s, attracted by cheap housing and factory work in the surrounding hills.

Seven years after the fervor surrounding the immigration ordinance – and in the midst of the revived national immigration debate – Hazleton has become a town that defies characterization. Acceptance is still met with animosity, progress with poverty and change with skepticism.

The increase in population in Hazleton from 2000 to 2010 – around 2,000 people – can mainly be attributed to influx of Latinos, both from within the U.S. and from abroad.

At the turn of the millennium, only four percent of the town’s population was Hispanic, while in 2010, 37 percent of Hazleton identified as Hispanic – a 735 percent increase in just a decade. Conversely, Census data shows that the rest of Hazleton’s population declined by more than 28 percent in the last ten years.

While a definitive count of the current Latino population is speculative, city officials and community leaders put the percentage somewhere between 40 and 50 percent. Yet they decry a lack of proportional representation in city leadership positions.

“We don’t have a bilingual person at city hall, we don’t have bilingual police officers,” said Arroyo, the newspaper owner.

City officials acknowledge the language gap that exists between the Latino community and city hall, but the struggling town faces the two-fold problem of being unable to attract bilingual workers and lacking the money to pay them.

Budget issues due in part to low tax revenue — a problem some blame on undocumented immigrants — has put Hazleton in a financial bind. The police department has been especially hard hit, functioning with just 36 officers when DeAndrea said he needs 60.

“We’re not going to learn a new language overnight,” DeAndrea said. “I don’t have the money to go spend a couple hundred dollars for Rosetta Stone and I’m not going to give each officer two hours of overtime five days a week to sit and study because I can’t take them off the road.”

DeAndrea cited the rise in both violent crime and drug dealing coinciding with the arrival of immigrants as the main problems facing his force. This is a common gripe heard in town: While Latinos have boosted the local economy with new businesses, they have also increased the crime rate.

“We can’t contribute that entirely to newcomers,” said Donna Palermo, the president of the Greater Hazleton Chamber of Commerce. “But there has been some increase in crime in that population segment.”

Palermo added that despite the cultural stigmatism associated with Latinos by some members of the Hazleton community, it is almost universally acknowledged that the growing number of Hispanic-owned businesses has kept the town financially afloat.

Walking down Broad Street, Hazleton’s main thoroughfare, it’s hard to imagine the current hustle-and-bustle without Latinos. Alongside long established town institutions like the Can Do Association and Hazel Drugs, there is the Dominican restaurant The Second Base, and the Lorenzo Wright Insurance Agency.

SM Enterprise Inc. doubles as a notary public and botánica where immigrants can wire money to relatives back home while they shop for candles and incense.

“There are now probably over 100 Latino-owned businesses in Hazleton,” said Arroyo, whose office in the Broad Street Exchange building is surrounded by lawyers and doctors catering to Spanish speakers. “This is just the beginning. Hazleton, and the entire area of northeast Pennsylvania, is experiencing a new wave of immigrants.”

Locals are flummoxed by the newcomers. They’re cognizant of the obvious shot in the arm they’ve given the town, yet some decry they’ve stolen local jobs and also driven down wages.

“The majority of the Latinos here are hard workers and they’re doing a lot of good for the city,” said Mary Kirkpatrick, a local housekeeper, as she sipped on a watery Bud Light and puffed away on a USA Gold cigarette at Henry’s Bar on Broad Street.

“Unfortunately [immigration] has raised our rents and wages have gone down, so that’s why Latinos are getting blamed for the city’s problems,” she said. “I’ve never worked for minimum wage in my life until now, but I can’t blame immigrants as I would do the same things if I had to.”

With the town’s financial woes, immigrants have had to rely on family, friends and the help of concerned citizens to ease their transition to the sometimes inhospitable northeast Pennsylvania cold climate.

Two long-term residents who decided to lay out a welcome mat for newcomers are Bob Curry and his wife Elaine Maddon. The couple helped found the Concerned Parents of the Hazleton Area, an organization that helps young students from Spanish-speaking homes with schoolwork. Curry is also putting the finishing touches on the Hazleton One Community Center, a free after-school recreational center for the town.

“All our friends out in Northern California always ask us why we still live in Hazleton,” Curry said. “They have enough do-gooders out there, we need some do-gooders here.”

Maddon, a Luzerne County councilwoman, is the cousin of Joe Maddon, manager of the professional baseball team, the Tampa Bay Rays. The couple has used his star power to attract attention for the Latino community in Hazleton through events bringing baseball players for visits.

While the city is far from being back on its feet, at least for now immigrants are tolerated by locals who know they’re helping prop it up. Yet most seem to agree that a ruling either way on the 2006 ordinance — which continues to cast a perennial dark cloud over the town — would make things easier so people at least know what’s to come.

During a mid-afternoon lull at his barber shop this month, Gonzalez sits in a chair splitting time between watching a Bruce Willis movie and the traffic passing by on Wyoming Street.

With his New York Yankees baseball cap pulled down low over his face, diamond-studded earring adorning both his ears and a dark blue sweatshirt bunched up around shoulders, Gonzalez’s thug life wardrobe is a fitting symbol of a culture that many people in Hazelton, he feared, don’t yet understand.

Behind the tough-guy exterior is a hard working barber who just wants a quiet place to live and run his business. While he knows there is still opposition to the town’s new arrivals, Gonzalez said that there is beginning to be a thaw in icy cross-culture relations.

“It’s not as bad as bad it was, especially with the younger generation,” Gonzalez said. “They’re getting used to seeing more of us.”