Closing arguments given in Hazleton case

Lawsuit tests cities' right to enforce immigration laws

March 23, 2007|By Erika Hayasaki | Erika Hayasaki,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SCRANTON, Pa. -- Attorneys for Hazleton, Pa., told a federal judge yesterday that the town's efforts to crack down on illegal immigrants would reinforce U.S. policies, but civil liberties lawyers argued that the issue should be left in the hands of Congress instead of local governments.

The arguments closed the nation's first trial to test cities' right to enforce immigration laws. The decision by District Judge James M. Munley, which is not expected for at least two months, could set national precedent for about 70 communities that have or are considering similar measures.

The Illegal Immigration Relief Act approved by Hazleton's City Council last year seeks to penalize landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and businesses that employ them, and it requires people to register with the city to prove their citizenship. Enforcement has been placed on hold during the legal challenge.

Hazleton's ordinances were intended to protect residents from rising crime, gangs and a drain on social services caused by illegal immigrants, said lead Hazleton attorney Kris W. Kobach. Its rules support federal laws against harboring or hiring illegal immigrants, he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups filed the lawsuit against Hazleton. The trial began March 12.

Kobach said Congress expected states and local governments to help the federal government detain and deport illegal immigrants but that the federal government had not done enough to stop illegal immigration.

"How can we participate if we don't know" who is in the country illegally? he asked.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said illegal immigration is a complex issue that, if left to local governments, could harm international relations and the U.S. economy.

"This is not only about Hazleton," said Witold J. Walczak, lead lawyer for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "They want other towns to follow Hazleton's lead."

The federal government considers whether an illegal immigrant was a victim of human trafficking or political persecution, or whether they have family responsibilities in the United States, he said, whereas "Hazleton's ordinances consider none of this.

"If they decide you're illegal, you can't live or work in Hazleton," Walczak said.

Walczak asked the judge to review two recent cases similar to Hazleton's: In Missouri, a state judge ruled this month that Missouri law did not authorize two Valley Park ordinances to punish businesses and landlords that hired or rented to illegal immigrants; and in California, Escondido passed an ordinance in October to fine landlords who rent to illegal immigrants but reversed its approval after a federal judge blocked the ordinance.

After arguments closed yesterday, Foster Maer, an attorney for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, said that if Hazleton's ordinances are enforced, "we'll have complete chaos with every town having its own foreign policy." His organization is one of several plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Maer said he feels hopeful that Munley understands that if Hazleton's ordinances were enforced, the city would become an even more "racially divisive atmosphere," where Latinos - whether illegal or not - would feel targeted by law enforcement agencies.

During the trial, Latino residents in Hazleton, who were not illegal immigrants, testified that they had received hate mail or had been discriminated against since the ordinances were introduced. Others said Latino residents fled the city.

Mayor Louis J. Barletta, who has become a national icon for towns trying to curtail illegal immigration, said he is confident that Hazleton will prevail. If not, he said, the city is prepared to take the fight to the Supreme Court.

Erika Hayasaki writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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