Hazleton Residents Sue to Halt Harsh Anti-Immigrant Law in Hazleton, PA

August 14, 2006
Contact: Jennifer Berry-McNulty, (212) 519-7811 or 549-2666; media@aclu.org John Garcia, PRLDF

HAZLETON, PA – A proposed ordinance that would punish landlords and employers who do business with undocumented immigrants and make English the official language is illegal and should be blocked immediately, according to a lawsuit filed today by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Community Justice Project, the law firm of Cozen O’Connor and local attorneys George Barron, David Vadia and Barry Dyller.

“All this ordinance does is create more tension and hatred between neighbors,” said Cesar Perales, President and General Counsel of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. “The city will also face major litigation costs. It is patently illegal for a local municipality to usurp the role of the federal government.”

Perales cited a report published by the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan agency that writes reports for lawmakers, which confirmed that federal law likely precludes Hazleton and other municipalities from making their own immigration laws.

“Hazleton’s proposed ordinance is bad for businesses, it does nothing to curtail illegal immigration and it is targeted against Latinos,” said Omar Jadwat, as staff attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “This mean-spirited law is wrong for all kinds of reasons, but it will almost certainly fail because only the federal government has jurisdiction over immigration matters.”

The ordinance, approved on July 13, is scheduled to take effect on September 11. Under the law, property owners could be fined $1,000 a day for renting to illegal immigrants, and business owners could be fined or have their licenses suspended for hiring illegal immigrants either knowingly or unknowingly. In addition, businesses would be barred from selling merchandise to illegal immigrants, including basic necessities such as food.

The ordinance would also turn Hazleton into an “English-only” community in which city employees would be barred from speaking any language but English and documents and other forms of communications would not be available in any language but English unless federally ordered.

The groups filed the lawsuit on behalf of [info about clients here, followed by quote if appropriate].

In addition to filing the lawsuit, the ACLU today sent a letter to the Mayor and the City Council informing them that this is the last opportunity to repeal the ordinance before the case goes to court. If the city fails to do so, the court proceedings will continue.

“The City Council and the Mayor have talked about altering this ordinance,” said Witold Walczak, Legal Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “To us, that shows that they realize they are far from safe legal ground, and we are determined to prove that in court, if it comes to that.”

The groups said in legal papers that the ordinance violates the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause because it seeks to override federal law. The ordinance also violates business and property owners’ due process rights under the constitution because it is nearly impossible for them ensure compliance. In addition, the ordinance’s “English only” provision violates city employees’ First Amendment rights to free speech.

The complaint is online at: www.prldef.org

The letter to the Hazleton Mayor and the Hazleton City Council is online at: www.prldef.org

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