Pa. town that cracked down on immigrants sees changes

Law on hold but population, business decline

resident reaction is mixed

November 10, 2006|By Ellen Barry | Ellen Barry,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HAZLETON, Pa. -- The changes came bit by bit to Hazleton this fall.

Rich O'Brien woke up one morning and his neighbors across the street were gone. For the first time in memory, William Sernak, who farms in a town nearby, could not find enough workers at harvest time. And Amilcar Arroyo has watched as the wire transfers sent from his store dropped from $700 a day to $200 to $50.

Nearly four months have passed since Hazleton's City Council approved an ordinance designed to make the city, in Mayor Louis J. Barletta's words, "one of the toughest cities in America for illegal aliens."

Although the ordinance has not taken effect, it has had its desired result: Barletta has no statistics but guesses that as many as 5,000 Hispanics might have left town.

"Some in the middle of the night," he said. "You would suspect they were illegals that left so quickly."

Though that estimate seems high, some changes are apparent.

Suddenly, there is quiet on Wyoming Street, where young Hispanic men once milled in the evening. Shopkeepers there say business has dropped by 20 percent to 50 percent, and two businesses have closed.

The shift has turned the clock back in Hazleton, an old coal city of 30,000 that had attracted about 10,000 Mexicans, Dominicans and other Hispanic immigrants over the past decade.

O'Brien, a 61-year-old truck driver, has watched the change with deep satisfaction.

"The drug dealers are starting to leave town," said O'Brien, a longtime resident. The street is "better empty than full of drug dealers and murderers and thieves."

Since the law passed July 15, Hazleton has become the test case for a new sort of immigration overhaul: the local crackdown. The Illegal Immigration Relief Act would impose penalties on landlords or employers who allow undocumented immigrants to live or work in the city.

More than 30 cities and towns have considered or passed ordinances based on Hazleton's. Most are waiting to see whether the law withstands court challenges by civil-rights groups, which argue that local governments have no right to regulate immigration.

Last week, a U.S. district judge granted a temporary restraining order to stop enforcement of the Hazleton law, which was to have taken effect Nov. 1.

Barletta said he expected the case to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Hazleton's heyday 70 years ago, coal miners from Italy, Czechoslovakia and Ireland streamed through the streets at the end of their shifts. But coal and textiles collapsed, and by 2000 the population had declined to 23,000, with a median age of 40.

The Hispanic arrivals - many from New York and New Jersey - opened 50 businesses downtown and boosted property values.

With the arrival of families from larger cities, though, crime in Hazleton began to change, said Police Chief Robert Ferdinand. There had always been a drug trade in Hazleton, but it became more brazen, with "a certain cold-bloodedness to it that we had never seen before," he said. The 30-man Police Department was overwhelmed, he said, and people began to worry.

"Worst-case scenario, as crime continued to increase and violent criminal activity continued to increase, the remaining decent people would leave the city and leave it to the criminal element," he said.

Sernak, who farms corn, hay and vegetables in nearby Weatherly, ran into more concrete problems: The law prompted Sernak's usual crew of Mexican workers to leave the area.

He advertised in the local newspaper and recruited 15 young people. They were not "fit to work," he said.

"We don't realize how hard it is to go out in 80-degree weather and try to pull weeds in the sun," said Sernak, 47. "Most people couldn't last one day. Most people didn't last till lunch."

Sernak sympathizes with Barletta's complaints: His Czech relatives all learned English, he said. But his troubles this season were so severe, he said, that "we don't know if there will be a next season." His father, Henry, 79, rode by on a small tractor. He had a question: "What will this country do without those people?"

Barletta said he had heard no complaints. If a few businesses close as the result of the ordinance, he said, it could be that "Hazleton can't support 10 grocery stores in three blocks."

What he is hearing from almost all his constituents, he said, is that they feel safer.

"Are we in a transition? Yes, I believe we are," he said. "We might be taking one step backward in population to move one step forward."

Ellen Barry writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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