Hazleton, Pa., all-American

July 09, 2006|By JULIE BYKOWICZ | JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTER

HAZLETON, Pa. -- Flags in green, white and red, the colors of Mexico, welcome shoppers at one of this small city's newest convenience stores, where the shelves are stocked with dried peppers and corn husks and dotted with handwritten "especial!" signs.

With a Latino immigrant population that has swelled almost tenfold since 2000, Hazleton was a natural place for Kimberly Lopez, a Pennsylvania native, and her husband, Ruddy Lopez, a Mexican immigrant, to open their store, their dream, four months ago.

Their timing couldn't have been worse, they say.

Last month, Mayor Lou Barletta proposed an ordinance that targets the city's illegal immigrants - and offends, some Hispanic community leaders say, the city's thousands of legal immigrants.

The mayor wants to make English the official city language, fine landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and revoke the business permits of their employers.

"Illegal aliens are a drain on our resources, and they are not welcome here," Barletta says.

The mayor's fighting words have pitched this former coal town in northeastern Pennsylvania into the spotlight at a time of intense national debate over immigration reform. All but certain to pass this week, the Hazleton ordinance would be the toughest law of its kind in the country.

Witold Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, says the ACLU has "grave concerns about the legality of this ordinance."

"Besides that, it's mean-spirited," he says. "We should be embracing immigrants and helping them assimilate. We are a nation of immigrants."

Reflecting the nation's divergence of opinion on the topic, Barletta and New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg - both Republicans - testified Wednesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Philadelphia, one of several planned around the country.

While Barletta maintained that illegal immigrants have been a burden, Bloomberg insisted that his city's economy would collapse without them.

Though the Hazleton ordinance is not yet on the books, the city is feeling its effects.

Immigrants are already leaving Hazleton, according to store owners, community activists and the mayor. They're leaving because they are illegal and fear being left without work and homes, or because they are legal and fear ethnic profiling.

"The Hispanic community is very upset. They feel like this is racism," says Amilcar S. Arroyo, who publishes El Mensajero, the area's Spanish-language newspaper.

Kim Lopez, 39, says six of her customers left town last weekend because "they were scared they wouldn't be able to get work with this new law and that they'd be deported." She wonders whether the business that she's building to cater to Mexicans - one of the largest immigrant populations here - will soon be obsolete.

And on a broader level, the Lopezes and others say they worry about the future of a town that was built by one wave of immigrants and revitalized by another, reversing the city's negative population growth in recent years.

Hispanics accounted for about 3 percent of the city's 23,000 residents in the 2000 U.S. Census. City officials now estimate that about one-third of the 31,000 people here are Hispanic, though they have no idea how many are here illegally.

"Hazleton will die without immigrants," says Dr. Agapito Lopez, a retired Hazleton ophthalmologist and a member of the Governor's Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs.

The mayor recently called Hazleton "Smalltown, USA." It's a fitting description for a city with one thoroughfare, Broad Street, and one public high school. There's a statue of Christopher Columbus in the center of town and neighborhoods of big, Victorian homes. The city's mottos are "Can Do!" and "The Power City."

That small-town feel, where a child can safely ride his bicycle into dusk and receive a good public education, has kept many families, including the Barlettas, in Hazleton for generations.

It's also what attracted, through word of mouth, the recent wave of immigrants from such places as the Dominican Republic and Mexico. Many work in the large factories and food-packing plants nearby.

Immigrants have opened dozens of bodegas and bought homes in areas that weren't desirable. They've taken the once-deserted Wyoming Street as their own, transforming it into a vibrant stretch of Latino businesses.

Spanish music flows from the open front door of Milagros Gift and Party Shop on Wyoming. Felix Luiz Aza, 33, who says he's a legal immigrant from Guatemala, is inside minding his wife's store and their 18-month-old daughter.

"My dream is not to be rich," he says. "It's to make enough money to help out my family."

But illegal immigrants have come here for the same reasons. Barletta says they have stretched thin the city's $7 million annual budget through using, but not paying into, taxpayer-funded services such as emergency medical care, public education, city code enforcement and police work.

And as the number of immigrants has risen, so, too has the number of violent crimes.

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