Hispanics flee Pa. town in advance of crackdown; judge blocks law from taking effect

Tuesday, October 31st 2006, 6:33 pm
By: News On 6

HAZLETON, Pa. (AP) Elvis Soto's variety store used to make money. But few customers have been walking through his door lately, and his merchandise, calling cards, cell phones, car stereos, clothing, is collecting dust on the shelves.

With bills mounting, Soto might have to take another job to stay afloat financially, and may even close the store.

On Wednesday, a tough, first of its kind law targeting illegal immigrants was to take effect in this small hillside city in northeastern Pennsylvania. A federal judge on Tuesday blocked the measure, but the evidence suggests many Hispanic, illegal or otherwise, have already left.

That, in turn, has hobbled the city's Hispanic business district, where some shops have closed and others are struggling to stay open.

``Before, it was a nice place,'' said Soto, 27, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic a decade ago. ``Now, we have a war against us. I am legal but I feel the pressure also.''

The ordinance, approved by City Council in September, imposes fines on landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and denies business permits to companies that give them jobs. The law empowers the city to investigate written complaints about a person's immigration status, using a federal database.

Mayor Lou Barletta, chief proponent of the new law, contends illegal immigrants have brought drugs, crime and gangs, overwhelming police and municipal budgets. He announced the crackdown in June, a month after two illegal immigrants from the Dominican Republic were charged in a fatal shooting.

At Isabel's Gifts, owner Isabel Rubio said business is so bad that she and her husband have put their house up for sale, moved into an apartment above their store and started dipping into their savings.

``I am in a lot of stress right now,'' said Rubio, 50, a Colombian who moved to Hazleton 24 years ago. ``Every day, we hope to have a good day.''

Opponents sued on Monday to block the law and a companion measure, saying they trample on the federal government's exclusive power to regulate immigration.

U.S. District Judge James Munley ruled that landlords, tenants and businesses that cater to Hispanics faced ``irreparable harm'' from the laws and issued a temporary restraining order. He said it was ``in the public interest to protect residents' access to homes, education, jobs and businesses.''

The ordinances ``are nothing more than an officially sanctioned witch hunt,'' said Cesar Perales, president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, a group representing plaintiffs in the case. They include the Hazleton Hispanic Business Association, several illegal immigrants, landlords and a restaurateur.

The mayor said he would fight all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary, saying the ordinance is ``as bulletproof as we can get it.''

Hispanics began settling in large numbers in Hazleton several years ago, lured from New York, Philadelphia and other cities by cheap housing, low crime and the availability of work in nearby factories and farms. The city, situated 80 miles from Philadelphia, estimates its population has increased from 23,000 to 31,000 over the past six years, with Hispanics now representing 30 percent of the population.

No one knows how many of the new arrivals came to the United States illegally, but assimilating such a large number of people, many of whom speak little English, in such a short amount of time has been difficult.

Many white residents resent the newcomers, complaining about rising crime and overburdened schools. Tensions have flared over relatively minor annoyances such as loud music and double parking.

``You don't like the big-city stuff coming here,'' said insurance agent Vincent Santopoli, 49, a lifelong resident. ``We're not used to it.''

Barletta, who has risen from political obscurity to become a darling of anti-illegal immigration activists nationwide, said he sympathizes with struggling Hispanic business owners. But he said the fact their revenues are down is proof the city had a problem with illegal immigration.

``I've said from the beginning my goal was to make Hazleton one of the toughest cities in America for illegal aliens,'' he said. ``Today, if I was an illegal alien, I certainly wouldn't pick Hazleton as my home.''

Police Chief Bob Ferdinand said his officers appear to be responding to fewer calls. But on October 20th, a legal immigrant from the Dominican Republic was accused of shooting and killing two Hispanic men, one in the country illegally.

Todd Betterly, 37, who was awakened by the gunshots, said the killings are proof the crackdown is necessary.

``There is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to find out who belongs here and who doesn't,'' he said. ``If we could have stopped one murder by knowing where these people are, isn't it worth it?''

A second ordinance would require tenants to register their name, address and phone number at City Hall and pay $10 for a rental permit. Landlords who fail to make sure their tenants are registered can be fined $1,000, plus a penalty of $250 per tenant per day. The goal is to discourage illegal immigrants from even trying to rent in Hazleton.

A 32-year-old Mexican who slipped into the United States nine years ago to find work said he has no intention of registering.

``What is the mayor gaining by this law? I'm not a drug trafficker, I don't run around in gangs. I do my job and I go home to my family,'' said the married father of two, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his immigration status.

Pennsylvania native Kim Lopez and her husband, Rudy, a Mexican immigrant, closed their grocery store October 1st after business tailed off dramatically over the summer. They lost more than $10,000, their life savings.

``Everyone was running scared and left town,'' said Lopez, 39. ``We had customers who came in who were legal citizens and they didn't want the harassment and hassle and told us they were leaving.''