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Last Updated: Monday, 7 August 2006, 17:24 GMT 18:24 UK
US town's battle over immigration
By Matthew Wells
Pennsylvania

Shop front
Local businesses cater to Spanish-speakers
Fed up with the slow pace of immigration reform in Washington, one small-town mayor is trying to get tough, from the bottom up.

The debate over how to handle the estimated 12 million illegal - or undocumented - workers who live in the US, has been raging for months now, dividing politicians from Washington State to Florida.

Hazelton City Hall is the fiefdom of Republican Mayor Lou Barletta, who recently steered a new illegal immigration ordinance through the local council, with only one member declining to support it.

It is a community of just over 30,000 people that used to be held together by coal mining, and the largely European wave of mass immigration that came through New York's Ellis Island.

But in the last five years, it has seen a large influx of mainly Latino workers, keen to settle in an affordable location away from the big cities, in order to raise their families.

Around a third of the population is now Latino, and up to 25% of them are living here without legal documentation.

Until now, they have been able to find jobs with local employers who are keener on having a source of cheap labour than running immigration background checks.

Town hall
Things are changing at City Hall
But things are changing at City Hall.

"As the mayor, I am no longer able to provide the public service that I should be providing to the legal citizens of Hazelton," Mayor Barletta tells the BBC.

He says that a spike in violent crime involving undocumented Latinos a few months ago, was the last straw. His new ordinance will penalise landlords who rent to "illegals", and businesses which provide them with jobs.

As far as official city publications are concerned, there will be only one language from now on, and that is English.

Several other districts in the country have tough by-laws relating to immigration, but Hazelton has become a focus of national attention and the national media.

European forefathers

The Blue Comet diner is only a few minutes walk from the steps of City Hall, and the largely blue-collar lunchtime crowd - both young and old - are convinced the mayor's got it right.

"They all come over here and take the jobs, and they get everything for nothing, while we have to work hard for everything that we have," says Gina, one of the shift managers.

They're killing each other, and we're in the crossfire
Gina

Most of the customers have Italian, Polish, or other European forefathers.

Eastern Pennsylvania is dotted with similar-sized communities still struggling to find a new identity in the post-industrial landscape.

Gina says she is fed up with feeling powerless in the face of illegal immigrants.

"They're killing each other, and we're in the crossfire," she says.

Mayor Barletta is adamant that many law-abiding Latinos support his crackdown. Schools, hospitals, and vital city employees are all overstretched, he says.

"I am trying to make sure that their hard-earned tax dollars go where they should go."

Slow

But just a few blocks from City Hall, where the main Latino small businesses are located on Wyoming Street, it is hard to find support for that view.

The way [the mayor's] painting a picture of the town going downhill, I don't really see that - I've seen it grow.
Christian Rubio
Here, traditional Latin ballads and the more modern beats of Reggaeton, waft from shop speakers and car radios across the neighbourhood.

The Rubio family run a well-stocked gift shop, with food stores and money-transfer outlets catering to Spanish-speakers on each side of them.

Business, they say, is slow following the new ordinance.

"It's made an environment that's very uncomfortable for anybody who's Latino," says Christian Rubio, 24, who has lived in Hazelton since he was a baby.

"The way [the mayor's] painting a picture of the town going downhill, I don't really see that - I've seen it grow."

"If people come in, it's going to change, but it's not for the worse I think," he adds.

Ghost street

Latinos who largely oppose the ordinance have recently formed a group called the Hazelton Area Latino Taskforce.

Dr Agapito Lopez, one of their main spokesmen, says: "This street was like a ghost street... Ten years ago, most of the buildings were closed."

Agapito Lopez
Agapito Lopez says the area is now booming
"Now it's full of Latino businesses and it's booming, but we don't have many people in the street now, because of this ordinance."

He is convinced that any spike in crime is more to do with outsiders who cynically exploit Latino youth as a market for drugs and gang activity, without any intention of coming to live in Hazelton.

He also warns the mayor not to pour any more flames on the racial fire: "We don't want to get into civil disobedience, but if we have to, we will."

Extremes

A coalition of lawyers has also formed, to mount a high court challenge to the ordinance. Immigration specialist George Barron was raised in Hazelton, from Italian stock.

Some old-timers he knows still struggle with English, after decades of being naturalised.

Mr Barron is confident that the ordinance will prove to be unconstitutional, unworkable, and unnecessary, given the wide-ranging powers of the national citizenship and immigration service:

"In order to do this effectively and accurately, the city would have to almost replicate [the service] in City Hall, and really do a lot more work than I think the city could possibly do," he says.

One of the Latino activists here has even accused the mayor of attempting to create a kind of local Gestapo, in the mould of Nazi Germany.

Although that smacks of misplaced hysteria, it reinforces the fact that shrill voices at the extremes of the debate, are dominating a discussion which cuts right to the heart of how the US should evolve now as a 21st-Century society.


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