Leaders of a Pennsylvania town that cracked down on illegal immigrants went to court Monday to defend their controversial practices at the start of a trial to explore whether local governments may act on their own to curb illegal immigration.
Officials in Hazleton, south of Scranton, passed the city’s Illegal Immigration Relief Act last summer, 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.
In opening statements, an ACLU attorney told a judge Monday that there is no evidence to back up the Hazleton mayor’s claim that illegal immigrants are destroying the quality of life in his city.
“Even if illegal immigrants really are wreaking havoc on Hazleton, that doesn’t change the legal analysis” that the crackdown usurps the federal government’s role, said Witold “Vic” Walczak, the Pennsylvania legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Kris Kobach, a law professor representing Hazleton in the case, said the town has welcomed immigrants throughout its history.
But after 2000, Hazleton began to see new criminals and new crimes, said Kobach, an immigration adviser under former Attorney General John Ashcroft.
The city had one murder in 1994 and did not have another until 2001, when an illegal immigrant was allegedly responsible for the slaying, he said. Five more killings happened in 2005 and 2006, all allegedly committed by illegal immigrants, Kobach said.
In court papers, Hazleton officials said illegal immigrants were responsible for at least 47 crimes since last spring, consuming much of the police department’s 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.
One of the first witnesses testified that the law inspired a “wave of hate” in a city where Latinos and non-Latinos previously had gotten along.
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.
The judge barred enforcement of the law pending the outcome of the non-jury trial, which is expected to last two weeks. Dozens of cities and towns around the country have followed Hazleton’s lead.
“This is the day we’ve been waiting for for a long time,” Mayor Lou Barletta said outside the federal courthouse. “Small cities can no longer sit back and wait for the federal government to do something.”
Under the law, 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 the City Council planned to remove those three words, making any complaint even partially based on race or ethnicity automatically invalid.