City’s immigration law turns back clock

Times Staff Writer

The changes came bit by bit to Hazleton this fall.

One morning Rich O’Brien woke up 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 Latinos may 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 Latino men once milled in the evening. Shopkeepers there say their business has dropped by 20% to 50% and two businesses have shut down. 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 Latino immigrants over the last decade.

O’Brien, a truck driver, has watched the change with deep satisfaction.


“The drug dealers are starting to leave town,” said O’Brien, 61, a longtime resident. The street is “better empty than full of drug dealers and murderers and thieves.”

Barkeep Maurice Umbriac, 70, noted that some of the immigrants were good people. But he could see O’Brien’s point: “People keep complaining the businesses aren’t doing well over there, but what kind of business do you want?”

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, including Escondido, Calif., 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. A U.S. district judge last week 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 Latino arrivals -- many of them 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,” Ferdinand said.

Anger had built up to a point that startled Father John Ruth, assistant pastor at St. John Bosco Roman Catholic Church, north of Hazleton. In July, Ruth decided to preach against the law, and for the first time in his career, he got anonymous hate mail in response. Worshipers took him aside to argue with him, and fellow priests disapproved.

“They are angry,” Ruth said. “There is a sense of anger and fear and frustration overall.”

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

Sernak 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?”

Jose Luis Lechuga and his wife moved to Hazleton from Mexico in 1991 to pick fruit, and seven years later, they opened a grocery and a small restaurant on Wyoming Street. But this fall, when business at the restaurant fell to six or seven customers a day, they shut it down. Last week, Lechuga packed up his van and set off south, toward North Carolina, looking for a place to start over.

Sal Acquisto, a local beverage distributor who stopped by to take an order, said he was sad to see Lechuga go.

“He’s a good man, hardworking. But when you have a lot more crime and violence ... " Acquisto trailed off.

“I have mixed feelings,” he said. “They didn’t come here legally.”

David Vaida, an Allentown, Pa., attorney who joined the lawsuit against the city, said people in Hazleton would “rue the day they drove the Hispanics out.”

“The economic benefits are going to go away,” he said. “They will be what they say they want to be, which is a decaying town, slowly losing population because there are no opportunities.”

But that was not the view of Bill Rinaldi, who owns six rental units in Hazleton. He said the mayor was “on the right track, getting rid of the trouble.” Another landlord, a 62-year-old Dominican man, said he had gradually come to see the ordinance as a positive move.

“If it keeps away illegals who have been involved in criminal activity, it would be good for everyone,” said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for his privacy. “Like everyone else, I did have a negative reaction initially, but one has to be able to take a second look.”

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.” Indeed, what he is hearing from almost all his constituents is that they feel safer.

“Maybe the problem that was next door to these people is gone. Maybe there was a house that was generally causing problems. Those people are no longer there,” he said. He said he fully expected the city to see significant population loss.

“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.”