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Hazelton mayor says enough, already!

A small Pennsylvania city proposes one of the nation’s toughest crackdowns on immigrants, who say blaming them for recent trouble is racist. Now they are both saying:  

By VANESSA GEZARI
Published July 2, 2006



HAZLETON, Pa. — On a recent morning in this small eastern Pennsylvania town, the following things were happening at City Hall:

The mayor was being interviewed by a TV crew about a proposed law that would make English the city’s official language and punish people who employ or rent property to illegal immigrants.

The mayor’s secretary was logging thousands of e-mails from people all over the country who thought the mayor was a hero for doing what the federal government couldn’t or wouldn’t do.

And a young Dominican-born woman named Genesis was waiting to translate for a friend of her mother’s, who had a meeting with the chief of police. Bullets had grazed the woman’s car, the police had taken it for evidence, and she wanted it back.

“Hi,” Genesis told a receptionist seated behind a pane of glass. “We have an appointment.”

She was home from Penn State University for the summer, and she spoke clear, lightly accented English that echoed off the marble walls. When her Spanish-speaking companion tried to slip a parking ticket through a mail slot, Genesis directed her to a wooden box beneath a sign that said, in English, Pay Tickets Here.

After months of political speeches and closed-door briefings in Washington, the debate over illegal immigration has found its way to Hazleton, a city built by people who came from somewhere else, where the mayor proposing one of the nation’s toughest crackdowns on illegal immigrants wishes his own immigrant forebears had taught him Italian.

More than a century ago, families came from Italy, Czechoslovakia and Poland, speaking their own languages and competing for jobs that are no longer here. The coal mines closed in the 1950s, but factory work, cheap housing and the promise of a quiet life have drawn a new wave of immigrants.

The 2000 census counted 1,132 Hispanics in Hazleton; now city officials think that number is closer to one-third of the estimated 31,000 residents. Many are Dominicans who came by way of New York; others are from Colombia, Mexico and Peru. No one knows how many are undocumented.

The peaceful cohabitation of native and newcomer might have gone on indefinitely here, as it does in other parts of America, were it not for two crimes committed on a single day this spring that cost the city thousands of dollars in police overtime and sparked a minor revolution at City Hall. On May 10, two teenagers, one of whom police say was an illegal immigrant from the Dominican Republic, fired a gun at a crowded playground; no one was hurt. That night, police say, two undocumented men, also Dominicans, fatally shot a white man.

“I was frustrated,” said the mayor, Louis J. Barletta. “I’m mayor of a small city in America. I’m taking action. I’m not waiting for anybody anymore.”

In mid June, he introduced the law, which would deny business permits and city contracts to companies that employ illegal aliens, fine landlords at least $1,000 for knowingly renting to them, and make English the language of all official city documents and signs. The City Council approved the measure’s first reading, and could pass it this month . Other cities, including Avon Park in Highlands County , are considering and have introduced ordinances that mirror Hazleton’s.

It’s about time, some longtime Hazleton residents are saying. About time someone did something to stop these people from acting so brazen, walking around like they own the place. Staring you down on the street, making you stop your car to let them cross.

“I grew up in this town,” said Gina Carlson, who works the register at the Blue Comet Diner, “and I’m the one who feels like an outsider.”

Even some Hispanics who usually support the mayor are nervous, because who can tell just by looking whether a brown-skinned person is here legally or illegally? Your citizenship status doesn’t matter to the guy in line at the doughnut place, who says: These people are everywhere. They’re like cockroaches.

Hazleton’s problems have as much to do with economics as they do with immigration. The Police Department has 31 sworn officers, less than half the national average for a city its size, and no money to hire more. The budget comes mainly from property taxes, and while new immigrants have opened grocery stores and hair salons in Hazleton, many work in industrial parks outside the city. Downtown, big office buildings sit empty.

Hazleton is a place that lived and died and is just beginning to stir again. The houses are tough and tired, grim-faced, mouth-set, weathered and dutiful, with square frames, tin roofs streaked by water and rust, dim brick facades, siding painted over and over. And then in the middle of downtown where you can still get a vacuum cleaner repaired and join the Boy Scouts, there’s a flashy sign for a grocery store with Spanish words in the windows and a scattering of bright awnings with musical names in sharp script clinging to the old buildings.

Other things are changing, too. This spring, the ladies at the Hazleton Historical Society watched drug deals go down across Wyoming Street in the middle of the afternoon. The buyers and sellers were white, black and Hispanic.
“Money would change hands and off they’d go,” said 83-year-old Jean Gormley, the historical society’s president.
“They’d go into the barbershop, nobody would ever come out with a haircut,” said Joan I. DeBias, 67. “Go into the dress shop, nobody ever bought anything.”

These are the constituents Mayor Barletta was thinking of when he leaned over his coffee in a downtown restaurant the other day and said: “These people are putting their faith in me. This is a small town. I can’t tell them Washington is working on it. This isn’t about building a wall on the Mexican border.”

He loves this city, he says. As a kid, he would sneak out at night to play basketball and come home without his mother ever knowing. He left Hazleton, a hometown he shares with Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon, to try out for the Cincinnati Reds, but they sent him home when they learned he couldn’t throw a curveball.

He likes the way immigrants cling to their culture here: the Irish with their ham and cabbage, the Poles with their pierogies. A year ago, he told the Associated Press that Hispanics would energize the city.

“Ninety-nine percent of them want the same thing my grandfather wanted when he left Italy — a better life for their kids,” he said then.

Now, in the summer of 2006, this 50-year-old Republican son of a city Democratic chairman was looking at a front-page photograph in his local newspaper of graffiti scrawled on the walls near a downtown playground: a reference to the Crips gang and an expletive directed at the police.

He was talking about gang fights, assaults with baseball bats and knives. And he was saying that there might have been no need for a law targeting illegal immigrants if not for all this: “If the shooting didn’t happen, if a 14-year-old didn’t fire into a playground, if these punks didn’t paint on people’s houses ­— we don’t paint on people’s houses! We respect personal property. This is bad stuff!”

He couldn’t see why some people were breaking a law his great-grandfather had to follow, and his city was left holding the bill. Everyone should be a citizen, he thought. Wait in line like they did. Fill out the paperwork. Learn English.

In the restaurant, an older woman laid her hand on his arm and said: “I just wanted to tell you, good job, well done. I’ll vote for you again.”

Mayor Barletta had gained a vote. He had also lost a vote, though he didn’t know it yet.

In a brick house a few doors down from Holy Trinity Slovak Church, Genesis Moreta, the 19-year-old who translated for her mother’s friend at the police station, had a message for the mayor.

“Tell him I’m against him,” she said. “Tell him he lost a vote from me, a citizen, and my mother and my father.”

Her father came to the United States 10 years ago. He washed dishes in a restaurant in New York, brought over Genesis and her brother, then their mother. They followed a relative to Hazleton.

Genesis went to school. Her mother packed sweaters in a factory for $5.15 an hour. She packed boxes at a warehouse for $8.25 an hour. She packed meat for $10.50 an hour at the Cargill factory, where it was so cold, she had to wear two pairs of sweatpants under her jeans, layered sweaters and a jacket. She quit, but Genesis’ father still works at the plant, where more than 70 percent of the 840 employees are Hispanic.

Genesis’ mother named her purposefully, after her first daughter died as an infant. Genesis was supposed to be a new beginning.

She is a 2005 graduate of Hazleton Area High School, who is now studying business in college and taking a summer economics class to get ahead. The only factory job she can see herself holding someday would be an administrative position. But she doesn’t know if she’ll stay in Hazleton; she isn’t even sure she’ll stay in the United States.

“I’m grateful because the U.S. has given me a lot of opportunities,” she said. “But I don’t feel I fit in here.”

People sometimes laugh when they overhear her speaking Spanish. It’s the same thing that bothers her about the mayor’s law. If crime is growing in Hazleton, she thinks, the city should hire more police.

“What gets me is, he’s judging the illegals,” she said. “I know they’re trying to do this for the better, but we think they’re doing it against us. We see it as racist. I know they just want a better Hazleton. I know how it was. I want it like that, too.”

Vanessa Gezari can be reached at vgezari@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8803.

[Last modified July 2, 2006, 21:49:24]


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