Federal lawsuit challenges Pa. city's crackdown on illegal immigrants

Monday, October 30th 2006, 7:51 pm
By: News On 6

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) Advocates for immigrants sued the city of Hazleton on Monday, seeking to block an ordinance that would impose steep fines on landlords who rent to people living in the country illegally.

In its lawsuit filed in federal court in Scranton, the American Civil Liberties Union said the ordinance and a companion measure set to take effect Wednesday violate the Constitution because they trample on the federal government's exclusive power to regulate immigration.

The laws would impose heavy fines on landlords who rent to illegal immigrants, deny business permits to companies that employ them, and require renters to register and purchase a renter's permit at City Hall.

The plaintiffs, which also include the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, several illegal immigrants facing eviction, landlords, and a businessman, said they would also seek a federal injunction blocking the laws.

``Immigration reform is an important issue, but if every little town like Hazleton across the 50 states makes up their own rules about immigration, we're going to be left with an even bigger mess,'' said Witold J. Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Mayor Lou Barletta, who has argued that illegal immigrants have brought an increase in drugs, crime and gangs to the town, disagreed, saying the laws did not regulate immigration, but instead targeted those doing business with illegal immigrants.

Hazleton's ordinance, which was announced in June, has spurred other towns to pass similar laws. The lawsuit and a similar one brought by the ACLU in Riverside, N.J., are being viewed as test cases, as local officials, frustrated at what they perceive as the federal government's inability to stem illegal immigration, take matters into their own hands.

Barletta said that he is convinced the courts will uphold the law and that the city has assembled a legal team to defend it.

``It's unfortunate that these special interest groups would choose to file a lawsuit against a small city that is struggling to protect itself,'' Barletta said Monday night. ``Hazleton is prepared to fight, and we will take this challenge to the highest court in the United States if that's what it takes to protect our legal citizens and quality of life.''

The law empowers the city's Code Enforcement Office to investigate written complaints about a person's immigration status, using a federal government database.

The companion ordinance requires 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 will face a $1,000 fine, as well as a levy of $250 per tenant, per day. The goal is to discourage illegal immigrants from trying to rent in Hazleton.

Hazleton, a city of 31,000, is about 80 miles from Philadelphia.