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Pa. City's Law Offers Immigration Test Case

A federal court in Scranton, Pa., heard testimony Monday from several Hispanic residents who said a city ordinance passed to discourage illegal immigrants changed their relationships with the townspeople.

The small town passed an ordinance that would punish those who hire undocumented immigrants — or rent property to them. The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups, along with some former Hazleton residents, challenge the ordinance, calling it discriminatory and saying it oversteps the authority of the local government.

A federal judge has blocked the ordinance from taking effect while the case is argued. There are nationwide implications: 26 other cities have passed similar laws and dozens more are considering doing so.

Witnesses who testified Monday said they had moved to Hazleton, on the edge of the Poconos, for a better quality of life and had helped revive what had been a "ghost town."

They said that before the ordinance, their relationships with native-born residents had been cordial. One even lauded Mayor Lou Barletta as a champion of the Hispanic community.

Then the city passed the measure allowing Hazleton to revoke the license of those who employ illegal workers, and fine landlords who rent to them.

Witnesses said the ordinance sowed fear and divisions. One described hard stares and hate mail. A couple of Mexican descent — both legal residents — said they had to close their food store and restaurant after business dried up. They said customers were afraid to come, citing rumors that police were questioning people on the streets.

Lawyers for Hazleton sought to establish that the Mexican couple experienced financial problems before the law passed. One attorney listed a number of Latino-owned businesses that he said are doing fine.

Hazleton's legal team also said the immigrant influx had led to a steep rise in violent crime. And two Hispanic witnesses said they did believe crime was up, in part because of Latino gangs.

The ACLU asserts that only the federal government has authority to set immigration law. But city's lawyers argued that courts have often allowed local laws to exist alongside federal ones, if they don't conflict.

More testimony will come from Mayor Barletta, and from a number of illegal immigrants. The court has agreed to protect their identities.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.