It was a bad two days in Hazleton, Pa. On the night of May 10, 2006, a 29-year old father of three was shot right between the eyes just blocks away from the downtown area. The next day, a 14-year-old boy fired a gun wildly into a playground. After two 36-hour investigations, five people were arrested. They were all undocumented immigrants.
For Lou Barletta, a Republican who was mayor at the time and currently represents that district in Congress, it was their legal status that stood out the most about the alleged criminals.
“What is particularly troubling is that he, as an illegal immigrant from the Dominican Republic, should never have been in this country in the first place, let alone in Hazleton, Pennsylvania,” he said during a 2006 congressional hearing, referring to one of the men arrested for the murder.
This was the start of Barletta’s crusade to try and rid Hazleton, and eventually the rest of the country, of illegal immigrants. It led him to try and enact a controversial law as mayor, and is staying with him today as he works to oppose the framework of a Senate compromise on immigration reform.
“They are rushing to try and take this issue off the table, but they aren’t fixing the existing problems,” Barletta said about the potential Senate deal that would offer a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers and increase border security, among other things. “It’s sending a signal that there is a green light to come here illegally.”
It comes across as a particularly hard line, especially in light of other conservatives either coming around on the idea or not rejecting it outright. But, knowing Barletta’s history with the subject, it’s definitely not surprising.
With the crimes still fresh in everyone’s mind in 2006, Barletta enacted a three-part law known as the Illegal Immigration Relief Act Ordinance. It would fine landlords who knowingly provided housing to illegal immigrants, fine employers who knowingly hired illegal immigrants, and make English the official language of Hazleton. The law has been struck down in various courts and has never been enforced.
“I needed to do anything to protect the people of my community,” he told National Journal. To that end, the goal became to “make Hazleton the hardest place in the country for illegal immigrants.”
Between 2000 and 2005, Hazleton saw an incredible growth in the Hispanic population. Pennsylvania tax breaks for companies brought in more factories, and more factories brought in more jobs for immigrants. In those years, the Hispanic population went from about 5 percent of the city to 30 percent. And that doesn’t include however many undocumented immigrants there are.
For Barletta, any increase in crime had to be seen through this lens. It's a view shared by many. According to a National Opinion Research Center poll conducted in 2000, about 73 percent of Americans believed that immigration caused more crime. But studies in immigrant criminality don’t bear that out. According to a 2007 report from University of California sociologist Ruben Rumbaut, the incarceration rate for native-born Americans ages 18-39 was 3.5 percent, compared with just 0.7 percent for immigrants.
And while it’s hard to calculate the exact rate for illegal immigrants, Rumbaut found a good proxy. He writes:
Of particular interest is the finding that the lowest incarceration rates among Latin American immigrants are seen for the least educated groups, who are also the groups who account for the majority of the undocumented: the Salvadorans and Guatemalans (0.52 percent), and the Mexicans (0.70 percent).
But those numbers don’t mean that much to Barletta.
“That argument never made much sense to me,” he said. “Wouldn’t you pass a law if you knew it could even save one life? If you could pass a law to bring back somebody who was murdered, wouldn’t you do it?”
In the world of slippery-slope arguments, this one takes the cake, according to Walter Ewing, a senior researcher at the Immigration Policy Center.
“His logic can be used with any group,” he said. “If a middle-aged person hurts someone, do you then have to target all middle-aged people? You can always find one case of someone in a particular group committing a heinous crime. That’s not the point. The point is, does the group in general, are they prone to this activity? And that’s just not true of immigrants.”
But the odds of Barletta backing down on his fight against illegal immigration may be slim-to-none. For one, the issue raised his profile immensely as a mayor, and certainly played a large role in his 2010 election to Congress. There’s also the fact that after redistricting, he is serving in a securely conservative part of Pennsylvania. And it's not like he is all alone in opposing this Senate plan. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who originally was part of the bipartisan team negotiating the package, came out against the deal.
“These guidelines contemplate a policy that will grant special benefits to illegal immigrants based on their unlawful presence in the country," Lee said in a statement. "Reforms to our complex and dysfunctional immigration system should not in any way favor those who came here illegally over the millions of applicants who seek to come here lawfully."
The deal has also been criticized by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group dedicated to reducing the flow of immigrants, increasing enforcement, and making sure there is no guest-worker program. Julie Kirchner, the executive director of FAIR, told National Journal that she believes that eventually enough members of Congress can be cobbled together to keep this outlined legislation from becoming law. And Barletta, for his part, is willing to be front-and-center among the opposition.
“I know there are people out there who will call me names for taking this position; it’s happened before,” he said. “But there’s no question this is a national security issue that needs to be dealt with. We know there are people who want to harm and kill Americans, and we don’t know who is in this country. So why then are we simply going to grant pathway to citizenship?”