Federal Trial To Test Legality Of Local Anti-Immigrant Measures

Saturday, March 10th 2007, 2:30 pm
By: News On 6

HAZLETON, Pa. (AP) _ Jose and Rosa Lechuga operated a successful grocery store for a decade in this northeastern Pennsylvania city, but they say a local crackdown on illegal immigrants killed their business.

The Mexican-American couple, in this country legally, closed their store and moved to Arkansas. But they are returning as plaintiffs in a federal court trial opening Monday that has thrust the former coal town into the middle of the national debate over illegal immigrants.

As Congress considers changes to immigration policy, the trial will determine whether Hazleton has the right to make life difficult for illegal immigrants by penalizing landlords who rent to them and businesses that give them jobs. A companion measure requires tenants to register with City Hall.

The case, to be heard north of here in the city of Scranton, is the first to explore whether local governments may act on their own to curb illegal immigration. There are an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

Because dozens of towns and cities around the nation have followed Hazleton's lead, the showdown will be closely watched.

``We're not only fighting for Hazleton, we're fighting for cities all across America,'' said Republican Mayor Lou Barletta. He championed the laws, saying illegal immigrants were joining gangs, dealing drugs, committing violent crimes and destroying the quality of life in this city of 31,000.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Hispanic groups filed suit, calling the city's action divisive and racist and saying it tramples on the federal government's exclusive power to regulate immigration.

U.S. District Judge James Munley barred enforcement of the laws pending conclusion of the trial, but even the threat of action has led many Hispanics to flee the city, and businesses that cater to them report plummeting sales.

``The city of Hazleton is promoting discrimination,'' said Anthony Romero, the national ACLU's executive director.

The plaintiffs include business owners such as the Lechugas, landlords, Hispanic groups and a number of illegal immigrants who were allowed to remain anonymous.

In court papers, the city said illegal immigrants have committed at least 47 crimes since last spring _ including one killing _ and were the subject of one-third of all drug arrests in 2005.

They also have driven up the costs of health care and education, the city said.

The law empowers the city to investigate written complaints about a person's immigration status, using a federal database. Ethnicity may be used as a basis for making a complaint, as long as it is not the sole or primary factor.

Critics contend it will make white residents suspicious of every Hispanic they see.

``Every Latino will be a target,'' said Cesar A. Perales, president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, one of the groups filing suit. ``The significance of Hazleton is about stopping this anti-immigrant movement dead in its tracks.''

But King's College political science professor David Sosar, a Hazleton resident and former City Council member, said Barletta had little choice but to act.

``For the most part, it's a quiet little town. When you have a few murders, a few major drug busts, shootings, those are the indicators that something is going on and you as a city government need to react to it,'' he said.

Judicial Watch, a Washington-based conservative legal group, said in a friend-of-the-court brief that the ordinances ``are in harmony with federal law, not at odds with it'' because they rely on the federal government's own standards for who may be in the country.

The trial is expected to last two weeks.