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US town in immigration spotlight

By Emilio San Pedro
BBC News, Pennsylvania

Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta
Mr Barletta has no regrets about trying to clamp down on immigrants

In July, 2006, the little known town of Hazleton in Pennsylvania became a key focal point in the national debate over immigration reform.

The council approved a controversial ordinance that granted the city's authorities extraordinary powers in dealing with undocumented immigrants and those who offered them employment.

The man behind the measure was the town's mayor, Lou Barletta, who has since become a leading figure of anti-immigrant campaigners in the US.

The law sought to punish businesses that hired undocumented workers and the landlords who rented out properties to them.

About a third of the former coal mining town's 30,000-strong population are Latino.

The law has since been blocked by a federal court, which declared it unconstitutional.

However, Mr Barletta, a Republican who was elected as mayor of Hazleton in 2000 and is now standing for the US Congress, remains proud of the measure.

'Protect community'

He said the proposal was necessary to grapple with what he describes as the negative impact on the town from the growth in undocumented immigrant population.

Herb Albee
Work visas are fine but when the work visas are up, it's time to go home
Herb Albee

"I took action because our elected officials in Washington wouldn't," Mr Barletta told the BBC in his office in the city hall.

"As an elected official, I had taken an oath to protect and defend the people of my community and that's what I had to do."

For Mr Barletta, the only way to deal with illegal immigrants is to shut them out of American society.

The mayor gave numerous examples of crimes committed in the city which he said were perpetrated by illegal immigrants.

One took place in the town centre after a local high school American football game.

"Football nights are big here in Hazleton," he said. "High school students go to the game and then hang out downtown and have pizza and soda on the sidewalks."

On the night in question, an illegal immigrant shot two people standing just 100 feet away from some high school students, killing one and wounding the other.

The incident "terrified" the town, Mr Barletta said.

Illegal immigrants, many of whom have left the city since the ordinance was approved, were also putting an intolerable financial strain on public services, he added.

Another reason for the ordinance was that some illegal immigrants were being exploited by abusive landlords, he said.

Ethnic split

The short-lived ordinance was blocked after a lengthy legal battle between the mayor and civil liberties groups.

Amilcar Arroyo
Amilcar Arroyo said the ordinance had made life worse for the town's Latinos

But for Hazelton's Latino residents, the law has firmly split the town along ethnic lines.

Amilcar Arroyo said the ordinance has left an indelible stain and changed life for the worse for the town's Latinos, many of whom have lived peacefully in Hazleton for decades.

Mr Arroyo, the editor of the Hazleton based Spanish-language newspaper, El Mensajero, said it emboldened people who felt hostile to all immigrants.

"They shout bad words at Hispanics," he said angrily.

"They tell us go back to your country - 'Take your boat and go back to your banana country' - and we get bad looks wherever we go."

'Seal borders'

Some 15 miles (25km) from Hazleton, I met Herb Albee, a local councilman in the small Pennsylvania borough of White Haven.

He applauds Mr Barletta and the Hazleton council for their attempt to use a local ordinance to tackle illegal immigration.

"The people that are coming in illegally are a slap in the face to those immigrants who are here legally," said Mr Albee.

He believes immigration will be the most critical issue to face the next president of the United States.

"Work visas are fine but when the work visas are up, it's time to go home," said Mr Albee emphatically.

"I just don't believe they should be allowing illegals access to the country."

For Mr Barletta, the solution is simple.

"If you stop the jobs for illegal aliens, you will stop the flow," he said.

"If you seal the borders and you stop giving federal benefits to people who are in the country illegally... many of them will simply go home."

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