Friday, July 27, 2007

Anti-Immigrant Act Struck Down in Hazleton, Pennsylvania

"The genius of our Constitution is that it provides rights even to those who evoke the least sympathy from the general public. In that way, all in this nation can be confident of equal justice under its laws. Hazleton, in its zeal to control the presence of a group deemed undesirable, violated the rights of such people, as well as others within the community. Since the United States Constitution protects even the disfavored, the ordinances cannot be enforced." - U.S. District Judge James Munley in a 206-page ruling on Hazleton's Illegal Immigration Relief Act - 7/26/07

In a ruling which challenged the substance and content of proposed anti-immigrant ordinances, a federal judge struck down the town of Hazleton's Illegal Immigration Relief Act (IMRA). IMRA was fostered by Hazleton's Mayor Lou Barletta (Republican-PA), and called for imposing fines on homeowners renting to undocumented immigrants, deny business permits to local businesses hiring them, and required tenants to register at City Hall and pay a rental permit. In addition, IMRA would have declared English the town's official language.

A bench trial and subsequent hearings on IMRA was presented before U.S. District Judge James Munley. The legal challenge to the Hazleton Act was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and Cozen O'Connor, a private law firm.

Judge Munley also ruled that Hazleton City Council's proposed Act interfered with federal law which is charged with regulating the nation's immigration laws. He also ruled that the Act violated the due process rights of employers, landlords and undocumented immigrant tenants.

Hazleton, approximately 100 miles from Philadelphia, is an old mining town experiencing economic and social shifts and regional changes. The town's rich history reflects the migration of German and Irish laborers, and later Italian, Polish and Russian immigrants. The town's population now stands at 30,000 of which an estimated 2,000-3,000 are thought to be undocumented immigrants. The town's Mayor has contended that undocumented immigrants have wrought crime, and gangs to the area, and negatively impacted the city's infrastructure and quality of life.

At a press conference held shortly after the decision was made public, the Mayor assured those present that the City of Hazleton would appeal the decision to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. Mayor Barletta commented, "Hazleton isn't going to back down..."

Others contend that this is a unique opportunity for Hazleton's leaders to promote dialogue and build understanding between newly arrived immigrants and the town's long-term residents. Hazleton can now model humane actions which engage in future-thinking about the town and help identify mutually beneficial opportunities for all, while also respecting the rich diversity of people that now call Hazleton their home.