IMAGE: HAZELTON MAYOR
William Thomas Cain  /  AFP - Getty Images
Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta stands in front of City Hall in Hazleton, Penn., last June.
updated 3/14/2007 10:09:14 PM ET 2007-03-15T02:09:14

The mayor of a Pennsylvania town that drew national attention when it passed a law cracking down on illegal immigrants took the witness stand Wednesday to defend against claims that it is unconstitutional.

Lou Barletta said an ordinance, which imposes fines on landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and denies business permits to companies that employ them, was in response to crime in the town of Hazleton.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued, saying that the federal government has exclusive power over immigration policy.

Enforcement of the ordinance was barred pending the federal trial, which is the first dealing with local efforts to curb illegal immigration.

The Republican mayor's testimony was expected to be the highlight of a two-week trial. Barletta, who is running for a third mayoral term, has become a darling of anti-immigration activists across the United States.

Immigrant numbers unknown
The mayor acknowledged he had no idea how many illegal immigrants are in his city, whose population swelled from 23,000 in 2000 to at least 30,000 now. The vast majority of the new arrivals are Hispanic.

"We usually find out someone is here illegally when a crime has been committed and then unfortunately it's too late," he said.

ACLU lawyers called Barletta to the stand on Wednesday to try to undermine his argument that illegal immigrants are destroying the quality of life in the northeastern Pennsylvania city.

Barletta acknowledged under questioning that Hispanics have helped reverse the city's economic fortunes, boosting property values and starting dozens of businesses. But he said that was the result of legal immigration, not illegal.

Despite the increase in population, he said, the city's income tax revenues have remained flat, leading him to conclude that a significant percentage are "either not working or working and not reporting income."

Testy exchange
The mayor became indignant when ACLU lawyer Witold "Vic" Walczak pointed out that illegal immigrants eat in restaurants, buy groceries and gas, purchase houses, and engage in other consumer spending that benefits city businesses and city government through sales taxes.

"So do other people who commit crimes," Barletta replied. "Do I condone illegal behavior because they buy gas or eat in someone's restaurant? I'm not one who believes that's OK."

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.

As to the constitutionality of the local law, the town's attorney, Kris Kobach, said Congress had clearly stated its intent that states and municipalities 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.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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