The Bigots Declare War on Immigrants
Jessica Cruz holds down two jobs waiting tables at diners in Hazleton, Pa.
She angrily remembers the day when she greeted three friends in Spanish -- and a diner customer pointed at her and ordered her to speak English. Another customer peered into the kitchen and said he looked forward to the day when immigration agents came to take away the Mexicans, she said.
Hazelton, a town of 31,000, was thrust into the front lines of the national immigration debate when city officials passed one of the country’s most extreme local laws targeting immigrants.
The town’s ordinance makes it illegal for people and businesses to aid undocumented workers, punishes landlords who rent to these workers, suspends licenses of businesses who hire them and makes English the city’s official language. “Irrespective of legality, it is promoting state-sponsored racism,” said David Vaida, a Pennsylvania attorney planning a court challenge to Hazelton’s ordinances in conjunction with the New York-based Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Sadly, Hazleton’s new anti-immigrant legislation is only the most extreme example of local municipalities such as Palm Bay, Fla., and San Bernardino, Calif., and states such as Colorado and Georgia that are considering or have passed ugly anti-immigrant bills.
Some of Hazleton’s provisions are “completely unenforceable,” according to Sisobed Torres Cordero, an attorney from Bethlehem. “For example, if you are an undocumented person, and I aid you in crossing the street, I am committing an illegal act, according to the ordinance. So what is the penalty, what do you do to them? You have something in writing that’s really meaningless.”
The law aims to make life in Hazleton intolerable for undocumented workers and create a climate of fear among legal immigrants as well, recalling the dark days of Jim Crow segregation in the South.
The law would fine landlords $1,000 for each undocumented worker that they rent or lease to, and it would even make it illegal to sell milk to an undocumented worker at a grocery store.
At the city council hearing prior to the law’s passage, Anna Aria, a member of the Governor’s Commission on Latino Affairs, asked the council, “Are any of you ready to deport U.S. citizen children because their parents are illegal immigrants?” She was astonished to hear several people in the audience yell out, “Yes!”
She warned that if the council approved the ordinance, it would make Hazleton “the first Nazi city in the country.”
Explaining his proposal of the anti-immigrant ordinance, Republican Mayor Lou Barletta declared, “Illegal immigrants are destroying the city. I don’t want them here, period.”
But Barletta’s drive to pin Hazleton’s social problems on immigrants not only deflects attention from the responsibility of politicians, but also ignores how recent immigrants have restored vibrancy to a city in decline.
Hazleton first grew during a wave of Eastern European immigration in the late 1800s and later drew large numbers of Irish and Italian immigrants. In the 1940s, the city reached its peak population of 38,000. It has steadily fallen since, as mining and textile production went into decline.
In 2000, there were only 23,000 residents when an influx of predominantly Latino immigrants brought the population back up above 30,000 and sparked new economic growth. Latino immigrants started 50 to 60 new businesses in the downtown area, according to Donna Palermo, president of the Greater Hazleton Chamber of Commerce. Increased demand for housing boosted some home values from $40,000 to $90,000.
“In an October 2005 interview with the Northeast Pennsylvania Business Journal, Barletta said the population boom had brought the city's economy to its healthiest state in decades,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Supporters of the anti-immigrant ordinances say that immigrants have also brought a crime wave with them, but the statistics tell a different story. Since 2000, there has been a decline in reported rapes, robberies, homicides and assaults, and the number of arrests is also down. Thefts and drug-related crimes have risen from a 2001 low of 80 to 127 in 2005 --hardly an unstoppable crime wave.
Ever since the explosion of mass marches for immigrant rights across the U.S. this spring, anti-immigrant forces have been looking for ways to strike back. Many right-wing politicians and organizations think that pushing for local and state laws is an ideal way to mobilize their constituents and recapture the initiative.
“It’s looking like we’re going to see a tidal wave of local governments stepping up to the plate on handling illegal immigration on the local level,” said Joseph Turner, executive director of the anti-immigrant group Save Our State in California, who tried but failed to meet a deadline to gather enough signatures to put an ordinance similar to Hazleton’s on the fall ballot in San Bernardino. “I believe it’s going to put enormous pressure on the federal government to finally act.”
Such anti-immigrant measures aren’t solely the work of Republicans and anti-immigrant groups, however.
In Colorado, the Democrat-controlled state legislature held a special five-day session in mid-July to pass 11 anti-immigrant measures that would deny most non-emergency state benefits to undocumented workers 18 years old and older -- forcing people applying for benefits to first prove their legal residency.
“This is tough, effective, enforceable and practical,” said Democrat Andrew Romanoff, speaker of the Colorado Assembly, as he boasted that the Democratic Party is “tough on immigration.”
Colorado modeled its laws on similar measures passed in Georgia earlier this year, making them the states with the toughest anti-immigrant laws. Overall, 27 states have passed a total of 59 new anti-immigrant laws so far this year -- a 25 percent increase over this time last year.
Nebraska stood alone this year in passing a law that went the other direction, when legislators overrode the governor’s veto to provide in-state college tuition for the children of undocumented workers who went to high school in the state.
At the federal level, the Senate unanimously approved a $32.8 billion bill to give the Department of Homeland Security money for more border agents and more beds in detention centers to speed up deportations. The Senate also passed legislation sponsored by Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer -- California’s two Democratic Senators -- that would impose a 20-year prison sentence for building or financing a cross-border tunnel and jail landowners for 10 years if they “display a reckless disregard for the construction or use of a tunnel on their land.”
The immigrant rights movement now faces the challenge of mounting resistance to this rising tide of anti-immigrant legislation. Activists need to build protests and other responses to draw attention to the scapegoating and racism that underpins these measures.
Eric Ruder writes for Socialist Worker, where this article first appeared. Thanks to Alan Maass.
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