ACLU: Hazleton Demonized Illegal Immigrants To Justify Crackdown

Thursday, March 22nd 2007, 1:41 pm
By: News On 6

SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) _ The city of Hazleton tried to ``scapegoat and demonize illegal immigrants,'' blaming them for crime, overburdened schools and other problems, an ACLU lawyer said Thursday at the close of a federal trial over the town's illegal-immigration crackdown.

``To lay the problems at the feet of undocumented immigrants is unfair,'' said Witold ``Vic'' Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

The ACLU sued Hazleton to try to overturn new city rules that target landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and businesses that employ them.

Walczak's team argued that the federal government has exclusive power over immigration policy.

The city disagreed, saying Congress had intended states and municipalities to help enforce immigration law. It noted, for example, that Congress in 1996 required states to determine the immigration status of anyone seeking public benefits.

Hazleton's attorney was to deliver his closing argument later Thursday.

Mayor Lou Barletta has repeatedly invoked rising crime, and particularly violent crimes, as a justification for the crackdown. Violent crime in Hazleton increased more than 70 percent since 2001.

Walczak acknowledged that Hazleton, a city of about 30,000, has endured an increase in violent crime, but he said illegal immigrants were responsible for only a few of the 428 rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults and homicides committed in the city from 2001 to 2006.

He also pointed out that Hazleton's overall crime rate declined at the same time its Hispanic population was growing.

Most illegal immigrants, Walczak said, ``come here to the land of hope and dreams to make a better life.''

Hazleton's Illegal Immigration Relief Act, which the city council revised several times for legal reasons, would impose fines on landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and deny business permits to companies that give them jobs. A companion ordinance would require tenants to register with City Hall and pay for a rental permit.

The act has been emulated by towns around the nation that believe the federal government hasn't done enough to stop illegal immigration. Enforcement of the Hazleton restrictions was barred pending the trial, the first in the nation to examine local efforts to curb illegal immigration.