Steve Chapman

The city government of Hazleton, Pa., got in trouble when it passed a law intended to drive out illegal immigrants. The American Civil Liberties Union sued to overturn the ordinance, arguing that it is the proper task of the federal government, not municipalities, to enforce immigration laws. But when good remedies are absent, it's no surprise to see bad ones emerge.

The ordinance says landlords may not rent to illegal immigrants, employers may not hire them, and merchants may not sell to them -- with stiff penalties for violators. Anyone who wants to rent a home would have to prove his legal residency. And city documents are now provided in English only.

This measure was a response to what some locals say are the problems caused by an influx of people, many of them apparently illegal, which boosted the town's population from 23,000 to 31,000. Those include a surge in crime, an overcrowded emergency room and soaring costs for teaching English to foreign-born children in public schools.

Those suing make a good case against the law. It would discourage companies from doing any kind of business with people who look or sound foreign, promoting discrimination against Hispanics and other minorities. It would penalize U.S. citizens, such as natives of Puerto Rico, who may speak only Spanish.

It would sweep so broadly that some legal immigrants (such as a permanent resident alien who has lost his green card) could be barred from working or even buying groceries. Even the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors tighter immigration limits and stricter enforcement, says the ordinance overreaches.

The trial itself, which concluded Thursday and now awaits a verdict, has not shed flattering light on the competence of those who drafted the law. Mayor Lou Barletta said he was compelled to act when a resident was shot to death, allegedly by two illegal immigrants.

But he had trouble explaining why, if illegal immigrants generate crime, they have been implicated in only about 20 of the 8,500 felonies committed in Hazleton in the last six years. ACLU attorney Witold Walczak also pointed out that amid this supposed crime wave, the city has reduced the size of the police force, despite having a budget surplus.

If Hazleton's illegal immigrants are prone to crime, they're the exception. Despite the growth of illegal immigration in the last decade, crime rates have dropped sharply across the country. This may not be a coincidence. In every ethnic group, reports a recent study by Ruben Rumbaut and Walter Ewing for the American Immigration Law Foundation, young men born in the U.S. are far more likely to wind up in prison than those who come here later.

In Hazleton, as elsewhere, the main reason Latino foreigners come is to work and stay out of trouble. In fact, those qualities are the same ones that get them accused of stealing jobs. Even those immigrants who work off the books contribute to the economic health of local businesses by buying goods and services. Hazleton has seen an expansion of its tax base.

So it's too simple to blame all the city's newfound troubles on illegal immigrants. But the resistance to this influx can't be ascribed to simple prejudice. It's a response to unwanted changes that create genuine burdens on the town and its citizens.

No one really doubts that the arrival of thousands of illegals put a heavier load on emergency rooms and public schools. (The mayor testified that the budget for teaching English as a second language has risen from $500 to $1.15 million.) If the police chief perceives the presence of gangs that were not there before, he's probably not hallucinating.

The root of the problem is that the units of government that allowed the problem of illegal immigration are not the same ones that pay the price for it. If it's national policy to tolerate illicit entries and overstaying of visas, then it's a national obligation to address the painful side effects. If the bill is going to fall largely on local governments, you can hardly blame local governments for trying to protect themselves.

The critics of this ordinance are right to note that it's the federal government that should enforce immigration laws. But the people of Hazleton are justified in asking: When, exactly, will that happen?


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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