- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2008

HAZLETON, Pa. (AP) | Mayor Lou Barletta, whose bid to unseat a 12-term congressman is based largely on his reputation as an anti-illegal-immigration crusader, is trying to keep his signature issue alive even as voters turn their attention to the troubled economy and sky-high gas prices.

The three-term Republican mayor on Tuesday announced his latest effort to rid Hazleton of illegal immigrants. Even so, he conceded that immigration may have been eclipsed as an issue in his campaign to oust Democratic Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski in a blue-collar, heavily Democratic district in northeastern Pennsylvania.

“Mainly gas and energy and the economy has been what’s on the minds of most people,” Mr. Barletta said.

Nevertheless, Mr. Barletta is still trying to keep voters focused on illegal immigration. And Democrats indicated how seriously they are taking Mr. Barletta’s challenge Tuesday by airing the first television commercial by either party in the general election battle for Congress.

Mr. Barletta has campaigned with Joey Vento, the owner of Philadelphia’s famed Geno’s Steaks who posted a sign in the window asking customers to speak English.

He also invited presidential candidates Sens. Barack Obama, John McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton to Hazleton to talk about illegal immigration. All declined.

On Tuesday, Mr. Barletta asked city businesses to work with a Florida company, Legal Employer Inc., to ensure that their employees are in the country legally. Legal Employer will use a federal database to check the employees’ immigration status.

“We will continue to make sure Hazleton remains one of the toughest places in the United States for illegal aliens,” Mr. Barletta said at the news conference.

But even around Hazleton, a city of 30,000 where illegal immigrants have been blamed for overburdened police, schools and hospitals, some residents say their attention is elsewhere.

Lifelong resident Carol Cauley, 66, said she “loves” Mr. Barletta and hopes he wins the election, but that “gas prices and food prices far override” the illegal-immigration issue. “I think most people have come to the conclusion that our demographics have changed and that’s a fact of life,” she said.

Mr. Kanjorski’s campaign spokesman, Ed Mitchell, said voters are talking more about jobs and the plunging real estate market than about illegal immigration. “Frankly, there are other issues right now that are of equal importance, maybe of more importance,” he said.

Mr. Barletta has sought to broaden his appeal. In his first ad of the fall campaign - released on the Internet last month - he presented himself as a candidate of change, mentioning illegal immigration only in passing.

Mr. Barletta, who is viewed as one of the Republicans’ best hopes to snag a Democratic seat, has been a staple of talk radio and cable TV news since he began a campaign to get illegal immigrants out of Hazleton.

At Mr. Barletta’s urging, the Hazleton City Council approved the Illegal Immigration Relief Act in July 2006. The law sought to deny business permits to companies that employ illegal immigrants, fine landlords who rent to them and require tenants to register and pay for a rental permit.

With Congress deadlocked over how address illegal immigration, many municipalities across the country have passed similar laws. A federal judge struck down Hazleton’s ordinance as unconstitutional, but another judge upheld a similar measure in Valley Park, Mo.

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