New Attitude on Immigration Skips an Old Coal Town
By TRIP GABRIEL
HAZLETON, Pa. — Before Arizona’s crackdown on illegal immigrants, before “self-deportation” became the Republican presidential platform in 2012, there was Hazleton.
This working-class city in the Poconos passed the country’s first law aimed at making life so difficult for illegal immigrants that they would pack up and leave.
Hazleton has faded from the national attention it drew with its Illegal Immigration Relief Act in 2006. But as Republicans in Congress advance plans to provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, the city presents a test case of whether the party risks leaving behind a critical part of its core constituency: white working-class voters for whom illegal immigration stirs visceral reactions.
“I’m totally against it,” said Jim Murphy, a lifelong resident who was sharing a pitcher of beer with a friend at Senape’s Tavern Pitza, under a McCain-Palin bumper sticker from 2008. “Illegal is illegal. Chase them all out. They don’t belong here.”
Joanne Ustynoski, who owns a small automotive business with her husband, Mickey, echoed many native residents who said that illegal immigrants in Hazleton received government benefits and were not as committed to hard work as their own forebears from Italy, Poland and Ukraine.
“They’ve got so much now,” Ms. Ustynoski said. “I am so disgusted. Mickey and I work so hard.”
The city’s crackdown in 2006 was led by Lou Barletta, then the mayor and now a congressman. On Wednesday, he wrote to a bipartisan group of eight House membersworking on an immigration overhaul bill to criticize them for heading “down the path of proposing some form of amnesty.”
Mr. Barletta, a Republican, said he expected the group to present a bill shortly after the Easter recess, a counterpart to a Senate effort to allow millions of illegal immigrants to work legally and to begin a path to citizenship without having to return home first.
In an interview at his district office in Hazleton, Mr. Barletta said Republican leaders in Washington want to “get immigration off the table” because it had been so costly in November, when President Obama won re-election with a landslide of Hispanic votes.
“Why are we even talking about a pathway to citizenship when our borders aren’t even close to being secure?” said Mr. Barletta, vowing to fight a plan that would allow millions of illegal immigrants to compete legally for jobs.
“Let’s not take on any more water on this sinking ship,” he said. “Let’s patch the holes. Then we’ll decide what do we do with all this water that’s here.”
The law Hazleton passed in 2006 penalized employers for hiring illegal immigrants and landlords for renting to them. In 2010, a federal appeals court declared the law unconstitutional. But the next year, the United States Supreme Court upheld a similar Arizona law, and it ordered the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in Philadelphia, to review Hazleton’s ordinance.
Despite Hazleton’s reputation as one of America’s toughest cities toward illegal immigrants, the Hispanic population there has surged. The 2010 census showed Hispanic residents totaling 37 percent of the population, up from 5 percent in 2000.
They are attracted by jobs at warehouses and at a meatpacking plant, by good schools and cheap housing, Mayor Joseph Yannuzzi said. “We really enjoy having the Hispanic community come here and revitalize a portion of our town.”
He and others insisted that the city is welcoming to legal immigrants and has an undeserved reputation. Still, he contrasted illegal immigrants with older waves of European newcomers in terms many Hispanics find insensitive.
“My parents were taught, you’re here to be Americans, speak English,” he said. “If you come over the fence, do you want to be an American, or do you just want to be in the country?”
Hispanic residents said they felt their entire population was stigmatized by the crackdown on illegal immigrants. Felix Perez, a Walmart employee with two daughters, 2 and 9, recalled a time he hesitated at the wheel of his car, unsure which way to turn, and the non-Hispanic driver behind him got out with a gun in his hand. “He saw my face, he knew I was Spanish,” Mr. Perez said. “They believe we are all the same because we look the same.”
Erika Hernandez, a community liaison, disputed the mayor and Mr. Barletta’s claims that efforts aimed at illegal immigrants are not a reflection on other Hispanics. The actions send a message of blanket hostility, she said.
“They don’t see people like me, who went to college,” said Ms. Hernandez, who was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to Hazleton as a teenager. “I’m an immigrant. I’m not living off the government. I speak English.”
“They don’t see me,” she repeated.
For many non-Hispanic residents, their views of what to do about millions of illegal immigrants seemed colored less by the policy debates of Washington than a personal reaction to living in a fast-changing city.
“The people in this town, we’re becoming a minority,” said Chris DeRienzo, 30, a wedding photographer who opposes a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. “It hurts. I grew up here. It’s not what it used to be.”
“You want to scream,” he added.
But a few residents said it was impractical that millions of illegal immigrants would uproot themselves from cities like Hazleton where they have become part of the community.
“If they don’t get in trouble and they obey the laws and have a steady job, I think they should be considered” for legal status, said Carmen J. Delese, who owns Carmen’s Bakery and Deli, with his wife, Marie. Their downtown business is around the corner from Wyoming Street, where so many Hispanic-owned storefronts have opened that a consultant to the city once suggested it be renamed Mexicano Norte.
On Good Friday, a procession with a Jesus carrying a heavy cross and tormented by Roman centurions speaking Spanish stopped traffic.
“That doesn’t make the other people who are waiting in line to get here feel so good,” Mr. Delese said. “But what else are you going to do with however many million there are?” From the NY Times today.