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Pennsylvania Town Takes Stand Against Immigrants


More immigrants come from Mexico than from any other country, and the biggest concentrations of immigrants are still found in states like New York and Texas. But immigrant settlement patterns are changing; many new arrivals bypass those traditional gateway states. They settle in six states that had previously seen limited immigration: Alabama, South Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio, and the state we're visiting next, Pennsylvania.

MONTAGNE: Hazleton, Pennsylvania, population 31,000, is one place that has recently seen a huge influx of immigrants. By some estimates, at least a third enter the country illegally. The mayor of Hazleton is leading a campaign to drive out undocumented residents from his town. He says their presence has strained city services and brought more crime. Hazleton's efforts are being studied by other places as well.

NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

JIM ZARROLI reporting:

A few years ago, Charlie Reynoso(ph) opened this small produce shop in West Hazleton, Pennsylvania. It's a tidy place with gorgeous piles of lemons, limes, and guavas piled in bins. Reynoso's store caters to mostly to Latinos, but recently he strung red, white and blue banners from the ceiling in an effort to reach out to non Hispanics as well. He says he's had to.

Mr. CHARLIE REYNOSO: (Speaking foreign language) Orlando, Florida. The Orlando, Florida...

ZARROLI: Reynoso says he came to Hazleton from Orlando, Florida a year and a half ago to open the store. Since the new law passed, he says his business has fallen off by 60 percent. A lot of people are leaving the town, he says, and if we don't do something about it, Hispanic business in Hazleton will disappear.

The new law Reynoso refers to was approved in July by Hazleton's City Council. It imposes $1000 a day fine on any landlord who rents to an illegal immigrant, and it revokes the business license of any company that employs one. The law is harsh, and it's meant to be.

Mayor LOU BARLETTA (Hazleton, Pennsylvania): We want people to know that Hazleton is probably the strictest city in the United States for illegal aliens. I think that's the only way that we can defend ourselves here until the federal government solves the illegal immigration problem.

ZARROLI: That's Hazleton's mayor, Republican Lou Barletta. Barletta says that since 2000, the population of Hazleton has grown by 30 percent, and most of the newcomers are Mexican and Dominican immigrants. Many came here to work in the local meat processing plants. And Barletta admits they've helped revitalize the town economically, but they've also brought some unwelcome change.

Mayor BARLETTA: The greatest asset that we have here in Hazleton is the quality of life that we enjoy. It's a town where people could walk the streets day or night and children could play on the playground safely. In the past two years we've seen a dramatic change in the fact that more and more violent crimes have occurred.

ZARROLI: And Barletta says many of the crimes have been committed by illegal immigrants. He cites the shooting in May of a local man, allegedly by four undocumented persons. Critics say there's no proof that illegal immigrants are disproportionately responsible for crime in Hazleton, but Barletta says they're clearly contributing to it. And he says undocumented persons are also straining the town's budget.

Mayor BARLETTA: When your resources are being drained - your police department, your code enforcement, your health department - time and time again on individuals who, I feel, shouldn't be here, as the mayor, I can't wait for someone else to come here and do something about it.

ZARROLI: Hazleton's efforts are drawing notice. Barletta says he's heard from dozens of cities and towns across the country wanting to study the ordinance. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat who's running for reelection, called the ordinance mean-spirited and said such measures feed off hatred and divisiveness. His Republican opponent, Lynn Swann, said Rendell was out of step with Pennsylvania voters.

Within Hazleton, the mayor's efforts seem to have considerable support, and a large crowd turned out to see the ordinance passed in July.

One recent afternoon, Maxine Balliet(ph) and her fiancé William Creasy(ph) were out shopping for school clothes on Hazleton's sleepy main thoroughfare, Broad Street. The pair have painted We Support You, Lou, and USA Number One on their car windows. They say the influx of immigrants has changed the town.

Ms. MAXINE BALLIET: You have people that are overcrowding in homes and in apartments to that point where garbage is loading up and you're getting roaches everywhere. We've had that problem here. I am for the mayor 100 percent on this. It's bad.

Mr. WILLIAM CREASY: Like if you're in an accident involved with somebody that's illegal that hits you, they have no insurance, no driver's license. What do you do? You're out of everything.

ZARROLI: Hazleton is now considering having its 31-member police department authorized to enforce federal immigration law. Mayor Barletta says that would make it easier to process and deport illegal immigrants arrested for other crimes.

To Hazleton's Latinos, efforts like these have been like a knife in the back. Agapito Lopez is a Puerto Rican eye doctor who has lived here since 1992. He punches the air with his fists when he talks about what's happening.

Dr. AGAPITO LOPEZ: There has always been hate here, but it has been subdued; it has not been overt. Now people are looking at us strangely, they're telling us to go home, and we are afraid we may have some confrontations because of this.

ZARROLI: Lopez says the campaign against illegal immigrants has fed on a certain provincialism in Hazleton and made law-abiding, hardworking Latinos feel unwelcome in the town. He says many have left Hazleton or are considering doing so.

Mayor Barletta seems baffled by that reaction. He insists the city has always been open to legal immigrants.

Mayor BARLETTA: I have welcomed for six years this new population, and it is well documented in both press and TV. So, you know, for someone to say today that they don't feel welcome, it's probably because they're not legal, and they shouldn't feel welcome because I have publicly said illegal aliens are not welcome here in Hazleton. So they're answering their own question.

ZARROLI: Already groups such as the ACLU and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund have hinted they will sue to overturn Hazleton's law. The Congressional Research Service said Hazleton may be overstepping its legal jurisdiction by intruding into federal immigration law. But Mayor Barletta says illegal immigration has become too big a problem for the town to ignore, and he says it's prepared to defend the laws even if some people dislike the consequences.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.