HAZLETON, Pa. — The debate over immigration reform found its footing in the hills surrounding this blue-collar town well before President Donald Trump's demand for border wall funding sent America into the longest government shutdown in its history.
In 2006, then-Mayor Lou Barletta brought the national gaze to Hazleton when he pushed for a city ordinance that fined landlords for renting to undocumented immigrants and denied business permits to employers who hired undocumented immigrants.
Barletta, who served in the House of Representatives before losing a Senate race to Bob Casey in 2018, pursued the crackdown as the city’s demographics were changing drastically. Hazleton’s growing industrial parks were drawing more Hispanics to the city while white residents were leaving the area. In 2000, white people made up 95 percent of Hazleton's population of 25,000. By 2010, they represented nearly 70 percent, according to the Census Bureau.
The ACLU and groups sued after the City Council passed the ordinance, and the law was ruled unconstitutional a year later. Soon, Hazleton, already deep in debt, was saddled with more than $1 million in legal fees that it’s still trying to dig its way out from.
Now, after a rocky monthslong government shutdown, residents will closely watch Trump’s State of the Union on Tuesday to gain insight into how the White House plans to move forward on immigration — policy changes that could affect many in this small city in Luzerne County, which heavily supported Trump in 2016.
The majority of the dozen people NBC News interviewed in Hazleton said that they believe they are beginning to see a progressive tipping point along the immigration line here, though there is still a large divide between Democrats and Republicans.
“You have people with more degrees than a thermometer in Washington, D.C., but somewhere along the line there became such a division along political parties that they stopped listening to the ideas,” said Frank DeAndrea, the town’s former police chief, who said he supports a border wall and making it easier for people to immigrate to the United States legally.
The idea of immigration reform is a popular one here in Hazleton, but so is border security. Increasingly, however, the city knows its future is tied to its ongoing demographic shift.
With the profitable industrial parks outside the township’s taxable borders and few opportunities to increase its own revenues, local advocates argue the city’s survival is increasingly married to the money earned and spent by its growing Hispanic populace — which today accounts for more than 54 percent of Hazleton.
The building of the border wall was a campaign promise. "So he needs to resolve that,” said Eddy Ulerio, who edits a monthly Spanish-language newspaper. “Today the crime is reducing. It’s not the same as it was five years ago, so I think he has to look for another way to solve that situation.”
Ulerio, 47, a native of the Dominican Republic, argued that a border wall would do little to change Halzeton’s immigration situation, as most of the town’s Hispanic population is also Dominican. Those who are undocumented, Ulerio said, come here legally and overstay their visas.
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“We need, I think, immigration reform,” Ulerio said. “Sometimes the representatives in Washington don’t think about that. The government has to work on it. The thing is that Trump thinks he needs to give his voters here the wall.”
It is undeniable that many of the people born and raised in Hazleton, a group that is largely white, remain concerned about the new members of their community, who many perceive as connected to the drug problem and violent crime in the city.
That’s a view that Shayne Balliet, 30, said that people don’t feel comfortable voicing openly. He runs a social media news site called Hazleton News 1 where some commenters share their displeasure with their Hispanic neighbors in caustic terms.
“Everything in this community is touchy, so it feels hard to not look like a pitchfork-wielding racist sometimes,” Balliet said. “It’s hard because people have so many strong opinions. It’s tough to make any form of comment.”
But when people don’t hold back their opinions, Balliet said that most of the older population in Hazleton still strongly support the president and his immigration agenda, even during the government shutdown.
“The majority of people were just completely pro getting the wall funded,” Balliet said. “I know a lot of people had pride in the fact that the GoFundMe was going around. I know that a lot of people have a straight stance of: ‘We want this done and let’s get it built.’”
The views of this older segment of Hazleton still hold a fair amount of power in this city. Despite the demographic shifts, all the members of the school board and city council are white, for example.
Many in Hazleton say that, despite opposing views on immigration and Trump, the tension of even five years ago has begun to dissipate.
Both Hispanic and white residents voiced their support for Mayor Jeff Cusat, a Republican, who has declined to state whether he voted for Trump. Cusat also traveled to the Dominican Republic in spring 2018 to visit the country of origin of many of his constituents.
He did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
But local advocates and community leaders said that they see a new headwind for Hazleton. In the 2018 midterms, Barletta, whose family ran a popular nearby amusement park for more than 30 years, won Luzerne County, his home turf, by only 8 points over Casey, a Democrat, who was easily re-elected to a third term.
In contrast, Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the Luzerne County by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016.
“You’ll see more Hispanics running for election,” Medina said of 2020. “We may not get a Latino winning yet, but we will have Hispanics on the council and eventually in all of those departments of the city. Down the road you will see a Hispanic mayor.”
Medina, now a prominent member of the Hazleton community, said that he does not plan to run for mayor himself, but said he would only support a person who is working behalf of town’s entire populace.
“That’s the first thing I ask someone who wants to run,” Medina said. “If you’re going to run for the Puerto Rican community, I’m not going to support you. You have to run for the entire community, including Anglos and Hispanics.”
While Hispanics have yet to enter Hazleton's political world with force, they are seeing opportunities in business and the town's culture. Amazon and American Eagle Outfitters both opened distribution centers outside the city over the past few years, attracting even more workers to the area and an increasing number of Hispanic-owned businesses are making their mark on the town.
Ricardo Santos, 48, runs a bright yellow food truck where he dishes up Mexican food made from his grandmother’s recipes. He's increased the number of trucks he operates around Hazleton in just a few years, and said he plans to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant soon.
Santos moved to New York City from Mexico when he was 17. He then came to Hazleton a few years ago to potentially flip real estate properties, splitting his time between New York and Pennsylvania.
Now his fare has become a beloved staple of Hazleton. He is regularly present at the town’s various events and festivals.
He even earned some headlines when he offered any federal workers in the area free food during the government shutdown — and for the flippant sign next to his truck that boasts, “Mexican food so good Trump wants to build a wall around it.”
“There are some people who don’t like it, but that’s too bad,” Santos said of the sign. “You should have a sense of humor.”
Although the president’s made some scathing statements against his homeland and countrymen, Santos said he has nothing against Trump, his supporters or even the border wall.
“Everyone has a right to vote, and Americans have spoken,” said Santos. “He’s from New York? So am I. But you want to think all Mexican guys are bad? Hell no. I know I'm good, so I'm going to show you what I’ve got.”
Phil McCausland is an NBC News reporter focused on the rural-urban divide.