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Two communities are sued over strict immigration laws

Federal lawsuits aim to stop spread of local ordinances

NEW YORK -- Since July, when the city of Hazleton, Pa., passed an ordinance aimed at making it ``one the most difficult places in the America for illegal immigrants," dozens of other communities have picked up on the idea, saying local governments must find ways to expel illegal immigrants.

Already, laws have passed in a handful of places: In Valley Park, Mo., population 6,518, landlords over the weekend began evicting tenants who are not legal citizens. In Riverside, N.J., families departed so quickly that they left piles of mattresses behind.

Yesterday, in hopes of stopping the spread of the ordinances, opponents filed federal lawsuits against Hazleton and Riverside, arguing principally that the local governments are violating the supremacy clause of the Constitution by attempting to regulate immigration, which is a federal matter.

Cesar Perales, president and CEO of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is suing Hazleton, called his case against the ordinance ``a slam-dunk." But a victory in court, he said, will not address the anger that is growing in small-town America, where many blame illegal immigrants for a range of social ills.

``There is now this crazy climate of `get these people out of town,' " Perales said. ``The laws are a reaction and a response to this sentiment. But it is also feeding it, and saying to people in these small towns that these [immigrants] are bad and they shouldn't be here with us."

A second lawsuit was filed against Riverside Township by the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, making similar arguments: that the ordinance governs conduct that falls under federal law; that it violates federal housing regulations and the Civil Rights Act; and that its terminology is ``vague and ambiguous."

Hazelton Mayor Louis J. Barletta this summer attracted national attention to this former coal-mining town northwest of Philadelphia that has seen an influx of between 7,000 and 11,000 Hispanic immigrants.

Disturbed by a May murder that was committed by an illegal immigrant, Barletta declared that ``illegal immigrants are destroying the city," and ``I don't want them here, period."

On July 14, by a vote of 4 to 1, the city council passed his Illegal Immigration Relief Act, which suspends the license of any business that ``employs, retains, aids, or abets" illegal immigrants; it imposes a fine of $1,000 per day on any landlord renting property to an illegal immigrant; and declares that all official city business be written in English only. People wishing to rent apartments in Hazleton will be required to apply for city residency licenses, which will only be granted after establishing citizenship.

Barletta said yesterday that Hazleton's residents are ``prepared to take the fight to the highest court in the United States if we have to," and have arranged a legal defense fund to defray the city's legal costs. Even if the ordinance fails the legal challenge, Barletta said, it will still have been worth it, because illegal immigrants are leaving.

``It's been incredible. We have literally seen people loading up mattresses and furniture and leaving the city en masse," he said. ``That was our goal, to have a city of legal immigrants who are all paying taxes. It's already been effective."

When attorneys for the Congressional Research Service, Congress's nonpartisan research arm, studied Hazleton's ordinance in June, they concluded that it ``would arguably create a new immigration regulatory regime independent from the federal system," and would ``very likely" be struck down in court. The report quotes a 1976 Supreme Court decision that found that regulation of immigration is ``unquestionably exclusively a federal power."

But the report also noted that Hazleton is entitled to use local licensing law to regulate the employment of illegal immigrants. Kris Kobach, a University of Missouri law professor and former immigration adviser to John Ashcroft, said states have prevailed by proving that their immigration measures are consistent with federal objectives. The ``gray areas" in the Hazleton ordinance, he said, involve issues such as renting to illegal immigrants, which Congress has never specifically addressed.

Christopher Slusser, Hazleton's city solicitor, said the city is ``not trying to regulate immigration. What we're doing is penalizing landlords and business-owners who employ" illegal immigrants.

The outcome of the legal challenge may determine how widely Barletta's idea spreads.

Already, five communities have passed ordinances based on Hazleton's, and 17 more are in the process of considering similar moves, according to the PRLDEF, which is tracking the effect of Hazleton's law.

Palm Bay, Fla., will vote on a similar ordinance tomorrow.

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