Federal Court Eyes Local Crackdown of Illegal Migrants ; under Challenge Is a Hazleton, Pa., Law, Copied by Many Cities, That May Go to the US Supreme Court

Article excerpt

In early 2006, Hazleton, Pa., mayor Lou Barletta stepped onto center stage of America's debate over immigration law reform and lit the fuse of a revolution.

His idea was simple: If the federal government couldn't stop an influx of illegal aliens into the US that now tops 12 million people, he could at least take steps to protect the borders of his own town. The ordinance punishes landlords and business owners who do business with undocumented residents.

Now in place or being considered in as many as 100 municipalities in at least 27 states, the Hazleton ordinance is, for the first time, under judicial scrutiny in a federal court in Scranton, Pa. It's the beginning of a journey that legal experts say will likely go all the way to the US Supreme Court. At issue is whether municipalities have the authority to mete out punishment to those enabling illegal immigrants or whether such laws usurp the federal government's power.

The winning side will also be able to claim a symbolic political victory in the nation's debate over immigration that is likely to impact whether the laws continue to proliferate and decisions by existing immigrants to stay or leave their communities.

"The Hazleton ordinance is like Shay's Rebellion, an historic event that started at the local level and had profound national consequences," says John Armor, a constitutional law expert in Highlands, N.C. "In this case, too, the rebellion has spread and people in other states have sympathized and put pressure from the bottom up to change the system."

Driven by a seeming lack of federal action on curbing illegal immigration, states and localities stepped into the debate in 2005. In 2006, more than 500 immigration-related bills were introduced into state legislatures, 84 of which passed, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. Many were inspired by Mayor Barletta's measure.

They affect everything from whether undocumented workers can become veterinarians to stiffer penalties for "coyotes" who traffic immigrants into the US.

"The variety of bills really reflects the complexity of the issue, and the debate has an influence on many, many levels," says Dirk Hegan, an analyst at the NCSL's Immigrant Policy Project in Washington.

In addition, at least 30 municipalities, including Escondido, Calif., and Farmers Branch, Texas, have passed the Hazleton ordinance and another 70 are considering it, according to a list compiled by the Associated Press. Hazleton's ordinance fines landlords who rent to illegals $1,000 a day and revokes the licenses of business for five years if they hire illegal workers.

Such local laws "do send a signal, and the signal is being received across the nation, and it's working," says Al Rodriguez, director of Hispanic-American group, You Don't Speak for Me in Scottsdale, Ariz. …