City’s immigration law turns back clock


By Ellen Barry, Times Staff Writer
November 9, 2006


— The changes came bit by bit to Hazleton this fall.

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.

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

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

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

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

“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.”

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.

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?”

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