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It’s ‘Get These People Out of Town’

Times Staff Writer

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

Already, laws have passed in a handful of places: In Valley Park, Mo., population 6,518, landlords over the weekend began evicting tenants who were not legal residents. In Riverside, N.J., families departed so quickly that they left piles of mattresses behind.

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

Cesar A. Perales, president and chief executive of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is suing Hazleton, called his case against the ordinance “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.

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“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 these [immigrants] are bad and they shouldn’t be here with us.”

A second lawsuit was filed against Riverside Township by the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, making similar arguments: that the ordinance governs conduct that falls under federal law; that it violates federal housing regulations and the Civil Rights Act; and that its terminology is “vague and ambiguous.”

Hazleton Mayor Louis J. Barletta this summer attracted national attention to his former coal-mining town northwest of Philadelphia that has seen an influx of between 7,000 and 11,000 Latino immigrants. Disturbed by a May slaying that was allegedly committed by an illegal immigrant, Barletta declared that “illegal immigrants are destroying the city,” and “I don’t want them here, period.”

On July 13, by a vote of 4 to 1, the City Council passed his Illegal Immigration Relief Act, which suspends the license of any business that “employs, retains, aids or abets” illegal immigrants; imposes a fine of $1000 per day on any landlord renting property to an illegal immigrant; and declares that all 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 citizenship or legal U.S. residency is established.

Barletta on Tuesday said Hazleton’s residents were “prepared to take the fight to the highest court in the United States,” and had arranged a defense fund to defray the city’s legal costs. Even if the ordinance fails the legal challenge, Barletta said, it will have been worth it, because illegal immigrants are leaving.

“It’s been incredible. 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. It’s already been effective.”

When attorneys for the Congressional Research Service, Congress’s nonpartisan research arm, studied Hazleton’s ordinance in June, they concluded that it “would arguably create a new immigration regulatory regime independent from the federal system,” and would “very likely” be struck down in court. The report quotes a 1976 Supreme Court decision that found that regulation of immigration is “unquestionably exclusively a federal power.”

But the report also noted that Hazleton was entitled to use local licensing law to regulate the employment of illegal immigrants. Kris Kobach, a University of Missouri law professor and former immigration advisor to former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, said states had prevailed by proving that their immigration measures were consistent with federal objectives. The “grey areas” in the Hazleton ordinance, he said, involve issues such as renting to illegal immigrants, which Congress has never specifically addressed.

Christopher Slusser, Hazleton’s city solicitor, said the city was “not trying to regulate immigration. What we’re doing is penalizing landlords and business owners who employ” illegal immigrants.

The outcome of the legal challenge may determine how widely Barletta’s idea spreads.

Already, five communities have passed ordinances based on Hazleton’s, and 17 more are considering similar moves, according to the Puerto Rican legal group, which is tracking the effect of Hazleton’s law. The city of Palm Bay, Fla., will vote on a similar ordinance Thursday.

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

Even in communities where ordinances passed easily, implementation has proven confusing and sometimes painful.

In New Jersey, a coalition of 35 Riverside businesses immediately organized to oppose the ordinance, which has caused “a lot of fear and everyone running in different directions,” said David Verduin, a spokesman for the group. Already, he said, two landlords have calmed down enough to re-rent apartments to immigrants who left Riverside in a panic.

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 staunchly supported the ordinance, but who did not realize that though his tenant was in the country on a legal work permit, the tenant’s wife and two of his three children were not.

The tenant moved out this weekend, to a new home in the next county. Sidwell said it was “the hardest thing” he had seen.

“There’s a lot of sadness,” said Sidwell, 63. “It is very stressful, because you are dealing with people’s lives.” But he said that he thought the ordinance was necessary to protect the quality of life in Valley Park, which is 88% white and 3% Latino, according to the 2000 census.

On a recent night, Sidwell said, he drove through town with his two grandchildren, and “there were 15 guys standing out there -- workers -- they’re standing out there, drinking beer and carrying on. If I did not live in the area, I would be scared to death to drive down these streets.”


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