Small-Town Quarrel, Big Implications

A judge in Pennsylvania strikes down Hazleton's anti-immigration law. How will the ruling affect the community, and immigration policies throughout the U.S.?

In a legal decision with far-reaching implications for immigration policies throughout the U.S., a federal judge in Pennsylvania struck down the city of Hazleton's tough anti-immigration law, ruling that it is unconstitutional and violates the standards of due process.

More than 100 cities and towns that have passed similar measures may now face increased legal pressure to put them on hold.

The Hazleton law, championed by Mayor Louis Barletta, was aimed at discouraging illegal immigrants from settling in the town of 25,000, located 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia. It included stiff penalties for businesses that hire undocumented workers and for landlords who rent living quarters to people lacking proper documentation.

But on July 26, U.S. District Judge James Munley handed down a clear and sharp rebuke to Barletta and other local officials. Munley said that towns such as Hazleton don't have the right to implement their own laws on immigration, because the issue is one that should be handled at the federal level. In addition, he said Hazleton's measure was so harsh that it would have deprived businesses of their right to due process. Under Hazleton's law, any business accused of employing an illegal immigrant would have had three days to produce proper documentation for the worker. Otherwise, their license to operate could be suspended.

"The genius of our Constitution," Munley wrote (link to decision), "is that it provides rights even to those who evoke the least sympathy from the general public. In that way, all in this nation can be confident of equal justice under its laws. Hazleton, in its zeal to control the presence of a group deemed undesirable, violated the rights of such people, as well as others within the community."

Jurisdictional Catch-22

Supporters of the ruling said the decision sets a precedent for cities and states across the country. "The victory in Hazleton sends a very clear message," says Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which led the legal fight against Hazleton. "These kinds of ordinances are wrong-headed, they're bad public policy, and they're unconstitutional."

The Hazleton decision does create something of a catch-22: While the ruling suggests that local officials can't determine appropriate immigration policies, the federal government won't make the decision. A U.S. Senate proposal for comprehensive immigration reform went down in flames in June, after it came under heavy fire from anti-immigration forces (see, 6/8/07, "A 'Failure of Leadership'").

The lack of clarity has left many business leaders and workers confused and angry. "The federal government has chosen not to lead on this issue—and they have to lead," says Mark Gould, president of Gould Construction, a heavy construction and highway contractor based in Glenwood Springs, Colo.

The Hazleton ruling does not carry the weight of law with other cities and states. They can proceed with their own legislative efforts, though they may now face greater risks from legal challenges. The ACLU vowed to wage battles against anti-immigrant forces across the country. "We will expend all the resources necessary to fight these initiatives," says Romero, adding that he is "confident" the ACLU will succeed.

Federal Disarray

The battle in Hazleton isn't over. Mayor Barletta has vowed to appeal the decision, first to an appellate court and then, if necessary, to the U.S. Supreme Court. "I'm not ready to lose," he said on the Small Town Defenders Web site, which has raised money for the town's legal battle. "We're not only fighting for Hazleton. We are fighting for cities across the country." Barletta did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The Hazleton decision comes as federal efforts to address the immigration issue are in complete disarray. Earlier this year, leaders in the Senate worked for months on a comprehensive immigration reform proposal, which had the support of prominent Democrats and Republicans as well as President Bush. But the initiative stalled after anti-immigrant groups claimed it would provide "amnesty" to the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country.

The lack of any new federal legislation has created uncertainty for many businesses. Business leaders in construction, agricultural, and other labor-intensive fields say they're facing worker shortages, as they're squeezed between local anti-immigration efforts and a U.S. Congress that can't pass federal legislation. Gould says the situation is going to get worse before it gets better. "They have decided not to fix this problem," he says. "And if they wait two more years or three more years, it's just going to get worse."

Tech companies have also felt the squeeze (see, 7/19/07, "Beware the H-1B Visa"). A coalition that includes Microsoft (MSFT), IBM (IBM), Google (GOOG), Intel (INTC), Motorola (MOT), and others has been pressing the federal government to allow more skilled workers into the country, both on a temporary and permanent basis. That effort has also been stalled as the immigration effort has become, in the words of American Immigration Lawyers Assn. President-Elect Charles Kuck, "radioactive" (see, 7/17/07, "The Gandhi Protests Pay Off").

Grassroots Affair

In Hazleton, Barletta and other local officials drew fire in part because of the harsh measures in their legislation. The ACLU criticized the proposed law because it could have turned town residents against each other, with accusations from one resulting in investigations of another. Any Hazleton resident, business owner, or official could lodge a complaint about illegal immigration and the town's Code Enforcement Office would be required to request identity information from a business or landlord within three days.

Local critics say that, although the legislation had not been officially implemented, it had already made police officers and others more aggressive toward Hispanics. "This ordinance had brought an incredible amount of division," says Rodolfo Espinal, president of the Hazleton Hispanic Business Assn. "It turned this town upside down." Espinal says the local Hispanic community is very happy with the court's ruling—and hopeful that the town's divisions will begin to mend. "Hopefully, everything is going to come back to normal," he says.

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