Monday, June 19, 2006

HAZLETON, Pa. (AP) — With tensions rising and the police department and municipal budget stretched thin, Hazleton is about to embark on one of the toughest crackdowns on illegal aliens anywhere in the United States.

Last week, the mayor of this former coal town introduced — and the City Council tentatively approved — a measure that would revoke the business licenses of companies that employ illegal aliens, impose $1,000 fines on landlords who rent to illegal aliens and make English the official language of the city.

“Illegal immigrants are destroying the city,” said Mayor Louis Barletta, a Republican. “I don’t want them here, period.”

Mr. Barletta said he had no choice but to act after two illegal aliens from the Dominican Republic were charged last month with shooting and killing a 29-year-old man. Other recent incidents involving illegal aliens have rattled this city 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia, including the arrest of a 14-year-old boy for firing a gun at a playground.

“This is crazy,” the mayor said. “People are afraid to walk the streets. There’s going to be law and order back in Hazleton, and I’m going to use every tool I possibly can.”

The City Council, which approved the measure in a 4-1 vote, must vote on it twice more before it can become law. The next vote is scheduled for mid-July.

When Mr. Barletta took office in 2000, Hispanics represented about 5 percent of the city’s population of 23,000. The population has since shot up to 31,000, with Hispanics now representing 30 percent, lured to Hazleton by cheap housing, a lower cost of living and jobs in nearby plants, factories and farms.

City officials do not know how many of the new arrivals are in the United States illegally, but say they are fueling the drug trade, joining gangs and committing other crimes.

Flavia Jimenez, an immigrant-policy analyst at the National Council of La Raza, predicted the Hazleton crackdown would prompt a civil rights lawsuit.

“Landlords are going to shut their doors to anyone who may look or sound Latino,” she said. “On the other hand, landlords may attempt to actually determine whether a person is undocumented or not and make multiple mistakes because of the complexity of immigration law.”

Whites in Hazleton seem to overwhelmingly favor the proposed crackdown. Mr. Barletta’s office has been flooded with hundreds of approving e-mails and phone calls — from as far as California and Florida — and he got a standing ovation when he walked into a Hazleton diner for lunch.

“It’s about time,” said Francis X. Tucci, 57, who was born and raised in Hazleton and owns a hair salon in the heart of the Hispanic business district. “We were a nice community. You find bad everywhere, I understand that, but we’re talking about here and now.”

Some Hispanics approve of the measure, saying they are fed up with crime.

“If I was mayor, I wouldn’t let anyone in who had a criminal record,” said Rafael Rovira, 69, a naturalized American citizen from the Dominican Republic.

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