City Defends Illegal Immigrant Crackdown

Tuesday, March 13th 2007, 5:36 am
By: News On 6

SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) _ Jose Lechuga struggled as a grocer, but he said his Hispanic customers became scarce when the city of Hazleton began to crack down on illegal immigrants.

``They didn't feel safe and they didn't want to have any problems,'' he testified Monday through an interpreter during the first federal trial to focus on a local law designed to curb illegal immigration.

ACLU attorneys representing Lechuga and others maintain the former coal town usurped power reserved for the federal government by adopting an Illegal Immigration Relief Act. They added that Hazleton leaders cannot justify the act by claiming that illegal immigrants are destroying the quality of life in the city.

``Even if illegal immigrants really are wreaking havoc on Hazleton, that doesn't change the legal analysis'' that Hazleton's local law is unconstitutional, said Witold ``Vic'' Walczak, the Pennsylvania legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Hazleton's ordinance, passed last summer, imposes fines on landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and denies business permits to companies that employ them. Another measure requires tenants to register with City Hall.

Kris Kobach, a University of Missouri law professor representing Hazleton, said the city has a long history of welcoming immigrants to the community. But after 2000, ``something had changed. Hazleton had seen new criminals and new sorts of crime,'' said Kobach, an immigration adviser under former Attorney General John Ashcroft.

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, Kobach said Congress had clearly stated its intent that states and municipalities can 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.

``This is the day we've been waiting 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.''

ACLU lawyers argue that the federal government has exclusive power over immigration policy.

Dozens of cities and towns around the country have followed Hazleton's lead.

One of those cities was dealt a legal setback Monday when a Missouri judge ruled that two ordinances aimed at keeping illegal immigrants out of the St. Louis suburb of Valley Park violated state law. The ordinances, which would have punished businesses and landlords who hired or rented to illegal immigrants, were taken almost verbatim from Hazleton's measures.

In Hazleton's case, enforcement of the immigration measures is barred pending the outcome of the non-jury trial, which is expected to last two weeks.

Lechuga, a Mexican immigrant who came to the country illegally in 1982 but gained permanent residency several years later, testified that his grocery store once attracted customers from throughout northeastern Pennsylvania. After the immigrant measures were approved, he said, customers stayed away, intimidated by a police car often parked nearby.

The city's lawyers portrayed Lechuga as an inept businessman whose problems began long before City Council approved the immigrant measures. Lechuga acknowledged the store had been struggling but said the crackdown killed any chance he had of reversing his fortunes.

He closed the store last month and moved the family to Arkansas, where he is looking for work.