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by The Fed
Sunday, Aug. 20, 2006 at 12:26 PM
Valley Park, Pensylvannia follows lead on illegal alien law; same law close to passage in several California cities
Valley Park, Pensylvannia follows lead on illegal alien law
By Stephen Deere
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
From the beginning, this is how Joseph Turner envisioned his idea to target illegal immigrants would play out:
Local communities taking up his cause and moving the issue from the halls of Congress into the chambers of city council.
Today, the 29-year-old activist from California is watching cities across the country enact or consider laws to crack down on illegal immigration. They are working off a blueprint he wrote. And some, including Valley Park, have already made it law.
"I knew it would be a big story," said the activist based in San Bernardino.
Back in October, Turner proposed that San Bernardino fine landlords for renting to illegal immigrants, deny business permits and city contracts to the businesses that hire them and conduct all city business in English.
Turner, founder of the anti-illegal immigration group Save Our State and an aide to a state legislator, touted his plan on the radio and sent out hundreds of e-mails to city officials throughout the nation.
He failed to get enough signatures to force a vote on the law in San Bernardino. But word of his cause spread. And eventually, a handful of municipalities adopted ordinances nearly identical to the one he championed.
Immigrant rights' advocates say the law has serious flaws. It has resulted in one lawsuit in Hazleton, Pa., the first municipality to adopt it.
In the end, critics say, the ordinances won't withstand legal challenges and will leave the municipalities with nothing but hefty legal bills and racial tension. The seven communities that have passed the laws have small populations - ranging from 2,000 to 22,000 residents - and five are in Pennsylvania.
Turner, who believes state and federal leaders have moved too slowly on immigration reform, describes himself as a "proud nationalist."
"I believe this country is superior and I believe our culture is superior to all others," he declared.
He sees illegal immigrants as the pre-eminent threat to that culture.
Burdens upon cities
Most cities that have considered a law targeting undocumented workers have just begun to experience the effects of illegal immigration, said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington. The group is calling for more stringent immigration policy.
"The burdens fall mainly on local communities and they are forced to act on their own," he said. "People see their lives being disrupted in many ways. People want to feel that they have a sense of control of their communities."
Those burdens, said Mehlman, are just what the enacted laws state: increased crime, overcrowded schools, blighted neighborhoods and a diminished quality of life.
City officials, frustrated by the federal government's slow pace on reform, are not apologetic about the possible impact of the new laws - illegal immigrants, some of whom have lived in their communities for years, suddenly feeling threatened or fleeing.
In Hazleton - population 22,100 - concern grew after a spate of high-profile crimes that involved illegal immigrants, said Joseph Yannuzzi, the City Council president. During one, a teenager fired a gun at a local playground, he said.
"Every illegal is going to have to suffer," he said. "We can't just go after the criminals because we don't know who they are."
Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta has established a Web site soliciting donations for the city's fees as it fights a suit seeking to overturn the law.
Unlike Valley Park, which has already put some landlords on notice about renting to illegal immigrants, Hazleton has yet to enforce its new law. The city, though, is establishing a system where all renters must pay for a permit. That way, the burden for determining who is lawfully in the country falls on the city, not landlords, who say they don't have the expertise to verify someone's legal status.
Still, the Hazleton ordinance is already having an effect.
"Hispanic store owners are saying their business has dropped," Yannuzzi said. "A great portion of them (illegal immigrants) are out of here."
The 2000 census estimated that about 5 percent of the city's population is Hispanic. But it's unclear how widespread a problem illegal immigration is in the city, Yannuzzi argues. He discounts the census numbers, saying they don't capture all illegals in the city.
Valley Park is in a similar situation. The census pegged the city's population at 6,500, most of whom are white. But Mayor Jeffery Whitteaker has described his city's new ordinance as "preventive maintenance."
The law has had an impact. The Archdiocese of St. Louis said last week that it has helped more than 20 families relocate from the city.
Landlords say the law puts them in an impossible position. They have no expertise in verifying immigration documents and if they ask too many questions, they risk being sued for discrimination.
Critics see other problems.
In Avon Park, Fla., City Council member Brenda Gray couldn't see evidence behind the premise that illegal immigrants damage society.
"Has anybody proven this?" Gray asked. "I said, 'Stop. Think about this.'"
More than three weeks ago, the Avon Park council voted 3-2 to reject a proposed law targeting illegal immigration. Gray's was the swing vote that killed the proposal.
Others point to possible legal problems with the laws. Cities copied sections verbatim from Turner's initiative, which he wrote himself. Some of the laws use, but never define, the term "illegal alien."
"There is no legal definition to that term at all," said Suzanne Brown, a St. Louis immigration attorney.
There are numerous situations where a person might be in the country unlawfully but still have permission from the government to live here, Brown said, such as those seeking asylum or cases where the "government recognizes someone is deportable but for humanitarian reasons allows them to stay."
The Hazleton lawsuit, filed in federal court by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and the ACLU, argues that the ordinance violates the U.S. Constitution's supremacy clause. The power to regulate immigration belongs exclusively to the federal government, it says, and the ordinance usurps that power.
Amid the legal filings and staunch declarations, illegal immigrants suddenly feel threatened in places they've called home for years.
A 30-year-old man who asked not to be identified said he fled Valley Park within days of reading about the ordinance. He said he came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 2. Like other undocumented workers in Valley Park, he feared being deported.
"What would my family do?" he said. "My wife doesn't speak English."
So he put his furniture in storage and took his wife and two daughters, ages 6 months and 6 years, to a hotel for more than a week. A few days ago, he found another rental in Ballwin, he said. Relocating has cost him more than ,000.
"I just wanted to get out of there," he said. "It's just not right."
Turner has heard such stories. They do not lessen his sense of accomplishment as more cities start to consider anti-illegal immigration laws.
"It's a very fulfilling experience," he said.
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