HAZLETON, Pa. – Sweating heavily because of the high-wattage television lights – and, perhaps, because of the bulletproof vest he wore under his tailored white shirt – Hazleton Mayor Louis Barletta proclaimed Thursday a historic day, the beginning of an organized resistance to illegal immigration.

Despite impassioned pleas from Hispanic leaders and community activists, including one who said Hazleton was on its way to becoming America’s first “Nazi city,” the council voted 4-1 to approve an ordinance targeting illegals that is believed to be the toughest of its kind in the country and is being used as a model elsewhere in Pennsylvania and in Florida and California.

Unless the new law is overturned by court challenge – and it faces a certain lawsuit – Hazleton will beginning punishing employers who hire illegal immigrants and landlords who rent to them. And, from now on, all official written business in this old coal-region city must be conducted in English.

Leaders insist the ordinance must be viewed outside the context of the city’s racial makeup, but it is indisputable that most of the illegals under discussion lately are members of a Hispanic population that has grown explosively in the past six years.

Dominicans, Mexicans, Salvadorans and natives of a dozen other Spanish-speaking nations have flocked here, lured by cheap housing and the promise of plentiful jobs at the area’s industrial parks. Many have come from New York City, fleeing the high cost of living and the pervasive sense of insecurity that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Tensions have grown ever higher as the largely white and traditionally insular city of about 30,000 has made room for Spanish-speakers who, many say, seem determined to resist assimilation.

In an interview with The Morning Call last summer, Barletta gave an upbeat assessment of the immigrant presence, comparing it to previous waves of immigration from Europe that included his own Italian forebears. But shaken by a homicide, a playground shooting and other crimes involving illegals, he drafted the Illegal Immigration Relief Act, basing it on a similar act proposed in San Bernadino, Calif.

While San Bernardino’s effort is hung up in court on a legal challenge, other communities are following Hazleton’s lead. Avon Park and Palm Bay in Florida both are scheduled to vote later this month on bills modeled after Hazleton’s. In Escondido, Calif., a councilwoman has proposed a bill based on Hazleton’s. And on Tuesday, the supervisors in Hazle Township, which surrounds Hazleton and has about 9,200 residents, approved a measure similar to the city’s.

“What you saw here tonight was a city that wants to take back what we’re given here,” said Barletta, who wore the bulletproof vest as part of extraordinary security measures that included temporary metal detectors at the entrance to City Hall. The mayor said he had received no threats, but took the precautions because of the fierce emotions engendered by the debate.

The ordinance requires prospective tenants to obtain an occupancy permit at City Hall. Landlords who are discovered renting to people without such permits face a $1,000-a-day fine. Employers who hire illegals can lose their business permits, city contracts or grants for five years on first offense and 10 years on second.

In a sweltering City Hall chamber, 11 speakers rose to challenge the ordinance or urge its adoption. The standing-room-only crowd was firmly behind it, treating Barletta to an ovation when he entered the room and wildly cheering Councilwoman Evelyn Graham during her lengthy, impassioned defense of the ordinance as a matter of law and order, not of racism as so many have charged.

Indeed, Graham accused some of the Hispanic leaders in attendance of hindering efforts to bridge cultural divides, saying they have encouraged separatist activities such as a Hispanic-only baseball league.

Two of the Hispanic speakers riled the crowd. Anna Arias, a Dominican native who works for Catholic Social Services, called the ordinance bigoted and racist.

“If you pass this, you will go down in history as the council that made this city the first Nazi city in the country,” she said, drawing catcalls.

Agapito Lopez, a member of the Hazleton Latino Task Force, angered some in the crowd when he said the city’s Hispanic residents will never assimilate. “We will never convert ourselves into Anglos,” he said.

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The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund has vowed to file suit to overturn the ordinance on the grounds that it interferes with immigration law, which is the sole provenance of the federal government. But Christopher Slusser, Hazleton’s solicitor, said the law does not speak directly to immigration. Instead, it targets the people who “aid and abet” illegals by hiring and housing them.

Even so, Councilman Robert Nilles voted against the ordinance, predicting it will lead to a costly court fight and some of its elements will probably be overturned because they conflict with federal law.

He said a separate ordinance under consideration by the city requiring tenants to register with the city would accomplish some of the same goals without provoking legal challenge.



(c) 2006, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

Visit The Morning Call at http://www.mcall.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-07-14-06 1537EDT


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