HAZLETON, PA - A coalition of local attorneys, civil rights and immigrants' rights groups today filed new legal papers charging that the city of Hazleton has overstepped its authority by passing harsh anti-immigrant ordinances that are at odds with federal immigration law.
"Immigration reform is an important issue, but if every little town like Hazleton across the 50 states makes up their own rules about immigration, we’re going to be left with an even bigger mess. Clearly we can’t have every community setting foreign policy," said Witold Walczak, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
The ACLU, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Community Justice Project, the law firm of Cozen O’Connor and local attorneys George Barron, David Vaida and Barry Dyller today filed an amended complaint to address the city’s new ordinances, which are set to go into effect on November 1. The City Council approved the new ordinances in the last several months to replace a similar law that was scrapped following a federal lawsuit filed by the coalition. However, the groups say the new ordinances remain unconstitutional and would prevent people who look or sound "foreign" from living or working in Hazleton-regardless of their actual immigration status.
"These ordinances are nothing more than an officially sanctioned witch hunt," said Cesar Perales, President and General Counsel of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. "Hazleton intends to aggressively search out and identify every single immigrant within its boundaries, assess their immigration status by a lawless process in which the immigrant has no say, and expel those who do not pass the test."
Hazleton continues to blame many of its ills, including crime, economic burdens and social dilemmas on undocumented immigrants, and maintains its express goal is to drive what it calls "illegal aliens" out of town. The new ordinances impose fines on landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and deny business permits to companies that give them jobs. In the new legal papers filed today, the coalition charges that the new ordinances infringe on the constitutional rights of all Hazletonians, not just those who are in the United States illegally.
Many Hispanics, including legal U.S. residents, have already left Hazleton and Hispanic-owned businesses are struggling to stay open, according to business association estimates. The new ordinances place burdens on business owners and landlords to investigate the immigration status of their employees and tenants, and fail to provide a way for immigrants to challenge the determination before they are forced from their homes or jobs.
The ordinance will inevitably force Hazletonians to discriminate against anyone they suspect of being foreign rather than risk the fines and penalties associated with a failure to comply with the law, said the coalition groups.
"We expect the government to make laws that will prevent discrimination, not require it," said Omar Jadwat of the national ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. "Hazleton’s ordinances clearly violate federal law, but more than that, they violate America’s tradition of fairness and democracy."
The groups are asking the district court to strike down the ordinances because they violate the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause by seeking to override federal law and the exclusive federal power over immigration, and because they violate due process and equal protection rights under the Constitution. Additionally, the groups assert that the ordinances conflict with Pennsylvania law governing the authorities granted to municipalities under the Home Rule Charter Law and the Landlord and Tenant Act, and violate the federal Fair Housing Act.
"It is the responsibility of the federal government to regulate this very visible and volatile area of the law," said Cozen O’Connor attorney Thomas G. Wilkinson, Jr., lead pro bono counsel for the plaintiffs. "To regulate such issues inconsistently and haphazardly on a local basis would be highly inappropriate."
The amended complaint is available at: www.aclu.org/immigrants/discrim/27220lgl20061030.html