Hazleton thrives after immigration law dust settles

| Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, 2:06 p.m.

HAZLETON — Hazleton is a different city from seven years ago when national news crews arrived and crowds lined up outside City Hall to shout opinions about an immigration law.

When proposing the Illegal Immigration Relief Act, then-Mayor Lou Barletta sought to make Hazleton the toughest city in America for undocumented residents.

Some undocumented residents reportedly left Hazleton as soon as Barletta suggested the law, but courts stopped the law from taking effect.

Since then, people moved in, not out of, Hazleton.

The 2010 Census showed that Hazleton's population increased by more than 2,000, the first gain in 70 years. An influx of Latinos, who now make up 37 percent of the city's population, led the growth.

“They started buying cars and fixing houses so Lowe's and other businesses started flourishing, and they started paying taxes to the city,” said Dr. Agapito Lopez, an opponent of the city's immigration law.

As the population changed, so did relationships between the Latino and Anglo communities, compared with when the law was proposed.

“The feelings were so raw on both sides, and there was certainly a greater sense of mistrust than we see today,” Bob Curry said.

Curry heads an effort to build a youth center for the Hazleton Integration Project of city native and Major League Baseball manager Joe Maddon. More people donated money, Curry believes, and offered to volunteer for the center, which will serve children of all ethnicities, now than would have offered to help seven years ago during the fight about the law.

The fight reached its height on July 13, 2006, when people carrying flags and signs for and against the law filled council chambers, spilled onto the steps of City Hall and jammed sidewalks of North Church Street.

Today, the fight continues in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia. While judges there ruled the law unconstitutional in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered them to reconsider the case in view of a decision upholding an Arizona law. Laws in Hazleton and Arizona penalize employers who knowingly hire undocumented residents, whereas Hazleton's law also would punish landlords for renting to undocumented tenants.

The nation no longer pays much attention to the outcome of the Hazleton case, although cities and states that considered enacting immigration laws might have prodded Congress to rethink the issue.

Last week, a group of senators and President Obama proposed comprehensive changes to national immigration policy. Their proposals include giving the estimated 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants a way to become legal residents, but the policy-makers also seek tighter borders, easier ways for employers to verify the immigration status of job applicants and an overhaul of procedures that bring immigrants to America legally.

Barletta, who sponsored the law to lessen the expense that undocumented residents put on the police, schools and the hospital in Hazleton, moved with the debate to Washington.

Now starting his second term in Congress, he represents Pennsylvania's 11th District. A Republican, Barletta said he is ready to challenge leaders of his own party.

“That's what he's known for: the immigration stance,” said Joseph Yannuzzi, who succeeded Barletta as mayor and continued defending the city's immigration law in appeals court. “He'll never support anything that resembles amnesty.”

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