Lawsuits try to block towns' migrant laws


Since July, when Hazleton, Pa., passed an ordinance aimed at making it "one the most difficult places in America for illegal immigrants," dozens of communities have picked up on the idea, saying that local governments must find ways to expel illegal immigrants.

Already, laws have been passed in a handful of places. In Valley Park, Mo., population 6,518, landlords over the weekend began evicting tenants who are not legal citizens. In Riverside, N.J., immigrant families departed so quickly that they left their furniture.

Yesterday, in hopes of stopping the spread of the ordinances, opponents filed lawsuits against Hazleton and Riverside, arguing that the local governments are violating the supremacy clause of the Constitution by attempting to regulate immigration, which is a federal matter.

Cesar Perales of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is suing Hazleton, called his case against the city "a slam-dunk." But a victory in court, he said, will not address the anger that is growing in small-town America, where many blame illegal immigrants for a range of social ills.

"There is now this crazy climate of 'Get these people out of town,'" Perales said. "The laws are a reaction and a response to this sentiment. But it is also feeding it and saying to people in these small towns that [immigrants] are bad and they shouldn't be here with us."

Hazleton Mayor Louis J. Barletta attracted national attention early this summer when he declared that "illegal immigrants are destroying the city," and "I don't want them here, period."

In recent years, 7,000 to 11,000 immigrants have moved to Hazleton, a former coal-mining town 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia; immigrants now make up one-third of the population.

On July 14, the City Council passed the Illegal Immigration Relief Act, which suspends the license of any business that "employs, retains, aids or abets" illegal immigrants; it imposes a fine of $1,000 per day on any landlord renting property to an illegal immigrant; and declares that official city business be written in English only. People wishing to rent apartments in Hazleton will be required to apply for city residency licenses, which will only be granted after establishing citizenship.

A Mexican businesswoman in town, Rosa Lechuga, has put her restaurant up for sale because her customers have vanished.

Almost as soon as Hazleton's proposal was adopted, immigrant advocates began preparing to challenge it in court, saying it was a clear case of pre-empting federal powers. But Barletta said yesterday that Hazleton's residents are "prepared to take the fight to the highest court in the United States" and have arranged a defense fund to defray the city's legal costs.

If the ordinance fails the legal challenge, Barletta said, it will still have been worth it, because illegal immigrants are leaving.

"We have literally seen people loading up mattresses and furniture and leaving the city en masse," he said. "That was our goal, to have a city of legal immigrants who are all paying taxes."

When attorneys for the Congressional Research Service, Congress' nonpartisan research arm, studied Hazleton's ordinance in June, they concluded that it "would arguably create a new immigration regulatory regime" and would "very likely" be struck down in court.

But the report also noted that Hazleton is entitled to use local licensing law to regulate the employment of illegal immigrants. For this reason, said City Solicitor Christopher Slusser, the ordinance makes no attempt to usurp federal power.

"We're not trying to regulate immigration," he said. "What we're doing is penalizing landlords and business owners who employ" illegal immigrants.

The outcome of the legal challenge could determine how widely the idea spreads. Five communities have passed ordinances based on Hazleton's, and 17 are considering similar moves, according to the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. The city of Palm Bay, Fla., will vote on a similar ordinance tomorrow.

In Avon Park, Fla., and Kennewick, Wash., similar ordinances were considered and defeated, in part over doubts over whether they would pass legal muster.

Even in communities where ordinances passed easily, implementation has proved complicated. In Missouri, Catholic officials are attempting to resettle 20 families who have been forced to leave their Valley Park homes since Saturday, said Hector Molina, director of the Hispanic ministry of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

Police contacted three or four landlords to tell them that their renters were illegal immigrants, said Officer Kevin Templeton. Among them was Ed Sidwell, who had supported the ordinance but did not realize that while his tenant is in the country on a legal work permit, the tenant's wife and two of his three children were not.

The tenant moved out. Sidwell said it was "the hardest thing I've seen."

Ellen Barry writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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