Jobs with Justice Responds to Rash of Anti-Immigrant Ordinances

10-06-06, 10:05 am

Hazleton, PA is a former steel town of 31,000 people about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia. In early July, Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta passed one of the most draconian anti-immigrant laws our nation has ever seen, the 'Illegal Immigration Relief Act'. The law will force businesses to fire suspected 'illegal' immigrants, prevent city government from providing any services in any language besides English, force landlords to evict undocumented immigrants, and require that all people living in Hazleton acquire a 'residency card.'

Mayor Barletta has lashed out against the city's Latinos due to what he cites as a rise in crime. In fact, the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports show that despite the influx of more than 10,000 immigrants in the last decade, crime has actually fallen. Since the immigrant workers have arrived, Hazleton has seen their declining economy rebound, and housing values have more than doubled.

The immigration debate has divided the town, and unfortunately Barletta's law has brought out the worst in a segment of the town?s population. A Philly JwJ human rights delegation to Hazelton found vandalized Latino businesses, graffiti proclaiming the presence of the 'KKK' and condemning 'spics.' There were signs on the front of local bars and night clubs warning local Latinos to 'Speak English or Leave,' and that the businesses would serve 'Legals Only.'

Some Latino city residents tell JwJ that many of their neighbors have already moved out. Three hundred workers have already been fired from the American Pork Plant and VanHoekelen Greenhouses. Latino-run businesses already report that business has declined by as much as 50% because their customers fear congregating in public areas. When the law takes effect, whole families will be forced into homelessness. The Hazleton Latino community faces being denied vital public services in Spanish such as health care and voting material. Children will be denied access to education. This is a human, civil, and worker rights crisis that is being compared to moments in the Civil Rights Era. Will this small Pennsylvania town become the modern day equivalent of Montgomery, Alabama in 1955?

Philadelphia Area Jobs with Justice has been working to bring attention to this outrageous legislation and to bring a message of solidarity and compassion to the town's immigrant residents. On Sunday, September 3rd, Philly JwJ helped to bring more than 400 people held an interfaith vigil at Memorial Park in Hazleton. Philly JwJ focused mainly on outreach to the faith and labor communities around Hazleton, coordinating conference calls with interfaith regional leaders and organizing more than 20 Hazleton-area faith and labor leaders to attend the vigil. Philly JwJ also helped to develop materials, talked to the media, and recruited people to ride buses from Philadelphia to Hazleton.

Amongst the supporters at the rally were members of SEIU 32BJ, AFSCME Local 2187 DC47, The Sisters of Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) of Scranton, Casa Dominicana, and the Hazleton Area Latino Association. Speakers included Rabbi Michael Michlin of Hazleton?s Beth Israel Temple, Rev. Doug McKeeby of Hazelton's Trinity Lutheran Church, Rev. Pat Sullivan of King?s College, Rev. Miguel Rivera of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leadership, Anna Arias, President of Hazleton Area Latino Association, and Dr. Agapito Lopez. Participants were led through prayer and song by the coalition of interfaith representatives while Jobs with Justice organizers made connections with folks form Hazelton's immigrant community. Unfortunately, a handful of small towns across the country have begun to pass laws based on or similar to the Hazleton ordinance.

St. Louis Area JwJ has been organizing to oppose a Hazleton-like ordinance in Valley Park, MO, about 20 miles southwest of St. Louis. Long Island Jobs with Justice mobilized in response to a similar bill in Suffolk County, where county executive Steve Levy pushed through a bill to require businesses, charities, governments and others with county contracts to certify each year that their employees are eligible to work in the U.S. Although the bill was passed, JwJ and allies were able to insert a powerful anti-discrimination clause, and will challenge the bill in court.

JwJ coalitions in The ACLU and Latino Legal Defense Groups are challenging the constitutionality of the Hazleton ordinance, and the town has so far agreed to delay implementation of the law. Philly JwJ is continuing to assess the situation and is developing a strategy to move forward in the coming months.

From Jobs With Justice