Hazleton Residents Sue to Halt Harsh Anti-Immigrant Law

August 15, 2006 12:00 am

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HAZLETON, PA – An ordinance that classifies certain immigrants as “illegal,” punishes landlords and employers who do business with those immigrants and makes English the official language is unconstitutional and should be blocked immediately, according to a lawsuit filed today by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, American Civil Liberties Union, the Community Justice Project, the law firm of Cozen O’Connor and local attorneys George Barron, David Vaida, and Barry Dyller.

“All this ordinance does is create more tension and hatred between neighbors,” said Cesar Perales, President and General Counsel of the PRLDEF. “The city will also face major litigation costs. It is patently illegal for a local municipality to usurp the role of the federal government.”

Perales cited a report published by the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan agency that writes reports for lawmakers, which confirmed that federal law likely precludes Hazleton from enforcing the ordinance.

“Hazleton’s anti-immigrant ordinance is bad for the community, is unconstitutional and will foster rampant discrimination,” said Omar Jadwat, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “This mean-spirited law is wrong for many reasons, but the most obvious is that the city does not have the power to make its own immigration laws.”

Enforcement of the ordinance, approved on July 13, is expected to begin on September 11. The ordinance defines certain persons as “illegal aliens” using a definition so broad that it actually includes many lawful residents and naturalized citizens. Under the ordinance, property owners are subject to fines of more than $1,000 a day for renting to individuals classified as “illegal aliens,” and business owners could be fined and have their licenses suspended for hiring “illegal aliens” either knowingly or unknowingly. In addition, businesses would be barred from selling merchandise to “illegal aliens,” including basic necessities such as food.

The ordinance would also turn Hazleton into an “English-only” community in which city documents and other written communications would not be available in any language but English unless specifically required by federal or state law. Also, documents from residents to city officials would have to be written in English.

The groups filed the lawsuit on behalf of 11 Hazleton residents and business owners as well as three non-profits. Plaintiffs include a lifelong Pennsylvanian and U.S. citizen who moved with her husband to Hazleton and opened a small business using her family’s life savings. The business was doing well and the couple became foster parents intent on adopting. Since the passage of the ordinance her business has been cut in half and she can no longer pay the bills. The family has been verbally abused with anti-Latino epithets and is contemplating moving from the area, according to legal papers.

In addition to filing the lawsuit, counsel for the plaintiffs today sent a letter to the Mayor and the City Council informing them that litigation can be avoided if the ordinance is repealed. If the city fails to do so, the court proceedings will be aggressively pursued.

“Not only is this law a bull in the china shop of constitutional rights, but it will do real injury to lawful immigrants and even citizens,” said Witold Walczak, Legal Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “It makes every person who looks or sounds foreign a suspect, including those who are here legally. You might as well just paint a target on every foreigners’ forehead or a sign saying ‘please treat me differently.'”

The groups said in legal papers that the ordinance violates the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause because it seeks to override federal law and the exclusive federal power over immigration. The ordinance also violates business and property owners’ due process rights under the Constitution because it is nearly impossible for them ensure compliance. In addition, the ordinance’s “English only” provision violates city residents’ First Amendment rights to free speech.

In a separate action today the ACLU of Florida, PRLDEF and other local groups opposed similar ordinances in Palm Bay, FL, also on the grounds that local governments cannot usurp federal authority over immigration issues.

The complaint is available at: www.aclu.org/immigrants/discrim/26463lgl20060815.html

The letter to the Hazleton Mayor and the Hazleton City Council is online at: www.aclu.org/immigrants/discrim/26464lgl20060815.html

The documents are also available at www.prldef.org

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