Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Better "dead" than Latino?

If you've never been to the former mining towns in Pennsylvania's coal country, it might be hard to imagine how dead many of these communities became once mining became automated (starting in the 1960s and 70s) and thousands of people lost their jobs.

Hazleton Pennsylvania was once a dying mining town--young people left for better opportunities elsewhere, businesses dried up and houses were left in disrepair. Then about 10 years ago, Latinos from neighboring urban areas rediscovered this (then) inexpensive Pennsylvania town and started settling in.

Now, it seems, Hazleton's mayor, Lou Barletta, would like to turn back the clock, eject the Latino "illegals" and return to the depopulation and economic stagnation of his youth. According to today's Washington Post, Barletta announced yesterday that Hazleton was the "toughest place on illegal immigrants in America," after passing Hazleton's "Illegal Immigration Relief Act. " The act imposes a $1,000-per-day fine on any landlord who rents to an illegal immigrant, and it revokes for five years the business license of any employer who hires one. To emphasize his tough-guy bravado, Barletta wore a bulletproof vest to his press conference yesterday because, he says, "Hazleton is menaced by a surge in crime committed by illegal immigrants."

Barletta's ordinance has more to do with the shift in the local population, and the Angl0-European majority's discomfort with those changes, as it is a referendum on undocumented immigration. Barletta and his citizens need to take a long hard look at what their ordinance (which is most likely going to be revoked at the first legal challenge) will do to Hazleton's community. Is it enforceable? Will is stop undocumented immigration? Probably not, but it will widen the divide in between Latinos and others, and will serve only to damage long-term ethnic relations in this small community.

It's well past time that Barletta and his cohort recognized a simple fact about American life: immigrants are our future as well as our past. You can alienate Latinos in your town, but they're not going away. Immigration to Hazleton is sign of economic health. Perhaps the Anglo residents of Hazleton would prefer their once dying town to a thriving economy with a vibrant, growing Latino population, but I cannot imagine why.

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