Federal Trial Over Hazleton, PA’s Anti-Immigrant Ordinances Concludes

March 22, 2007 12:00 am

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Trial Reveals City Officials Unfairly Demonized Undocumented Immigrants

SCRANTON, PA – Trial came to an end today in a federal challenge to prevent the city of Hazleton, PA from implementing harsh anti-immigrant ordinances that are at odds with federal law. The two-week trial revealed that Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta and city officials rushed to scapegoat undocumented immigrants for several of the city’s burdens, despite evidence to the contrary.

The challenge was filed on behalf of Hazleton residents and business owners who oppose the ordinances, and is led by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Community Justice Project and the law firm of Cozen O’Connor.

The groups urged Judge James M. Munley to strike down the ordinances because they violate the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause by conflicting with federal immigration policy, and because they violate due process and equal protection rights under the Constitution.

“Immigration is a federal responsibility and allowing every city and town across America to set their own immigration policies would create a dysfunctional set of dueling rules and regulations,” said Vic Walczak, the lead ACLU attorney in the case. “If the Hazleton laws were enacted, they would create a system that is bound to unfairly discriminate against immigrants, including U.S. citizens and children.”

Throughout the course of the trial, testimony from city officials revealed that the city council and mayor rushed to pass the ordinances without conducting any research. Mayor Barletta insisted that undocumented immigrants are responsible for Hazleton’s crime problem, even though police records show that undocumented immigrants were only involved in approximately 20 of the more than 8,500 crimes committed since 2001. Furthermore, of the 428 “violent crimes” defined and compiled by the city, undocumented immigrants were responsible for less than five.

Attorneys will file additional legal papers in the case by mid-April, and a decision is not expected until at least May or June. In the meantime the ordinances will not go into effect.

More than 80 cities and towns across America have proposed laws similar to those in Hazleton. In many cases, these ordinances deprive individuals of due process by terminating employment or housing without a proper hearing.

“Laws like those passed by Hazleton clearly violate federal law, but more than that, they violate America’s tradition of fairness and openness,” said Omar Jadwat of the national ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. “We expect the government to make laws that will prevent discrimination, not require it. The evidence at trial clearly showed that these ordinances would lead to individuals losing jobs and housing because of their appearance and language ability.”

In several cases where challenges have been brought against local ordinances, the courts have found that the cities had over-reached when trying to pass a law that is preempted by federal immigration laws, and agreed to temporarily block their implementation. Nearly 20 of the laws that have passed have been tabled or defeated. In December 2006, the city of Escondido, California agreed to a permanent injunction against enforcement of its anti-immigrant ordinance.

The Hazleton case is Lozano v. Hazleton and is in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. More information on this case is online at www.aclu.org/hazleton.

In addition to Walczak and Jadwat, ACLU attorneys in the case are Lucas Guttentag, Jennifer Chang and Lee Gelernt of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, and Mary Catherine Roper and Paula Knudsen of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

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