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
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
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. …