The issue of what to do about the country's roughly 12 million illegal immigrants — namely, whether to crack down with laws that focus on punishment or come up with a more lenient approach that offers a possible path to citizenship — has emerged as a major issue in the race to represent Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate.
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) — who opposed the bill passed by the Senate in May that calls for the creation of a guest worker program on the grounds that it would reward those who skirted the law — has tried to paint his Democratic opponent, Pennsylvania Treasurer Bob Casey, as soft on border security.
The Casey camp has been returning fire, claiming that Santorum has done little in his two-term tenure to tighten America's southern border. It also has tried to depict the challenger as one who would indeed crack down on illegal immigration.
As the candidates exchanged blows, on Tuesday the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Republican Policy Committee held the first of four scheduled public hearings on immigration. Another is scheduled for Thursday, July 27, at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
"There have been all these proposals at the federal level, but Congress hasn't acted on any of them," said Darren Smith, a staffer for Rep. Mario Civera Jr. (R-District 164), who heads the committee.
Smith explained that no specific bills are on the table yet, and that lawmakers are trying to determine whether the state has the authority to act in what is traditionally considered the domain of the federal government.
Immigration-rights advocates fear that Harrisburg might introduce a similar type of punitive legislation that was passed last year by the U.S. House of Representatives that called for illegals to be charged as felons.
Bull by the Horns
Amid this flurry of activity on the issue, Hazleton — a city of about 30,000 in Luzerne County — has now thrust itself into the center of the debate by enacting an ordinance that effectively seeks to bar illegal immigrants from living or working there.
By passing a piece of legislation that supporters call bold and opponents call draconian (and possibly unconstitutional), the city — which experienced a dramatic growth in its Hispanic population in the last decade — has raised the question of whether a local government even has the authority to create such policy.
On July 14, Hazleton's city council voted 4-1 in favor of the "Illegal Immigration Relief Act Ordinance," which prohibits undocumented immigrants from living or working there. It also calls for heavy financial tolls on landlords and employers who rent to or hire undocumented immigrants, and makes the city responsible for determining who exactly is a legal immigrant.
The ordinance further declared English to be the official language of the city, and stated that all municipal business be conducted in English — a provision that critics say will hinder even legal immigrants.
"Illegal immigration leads to higher crime rates, contributes to overcrowded classrooms and failing schools … [It] destroys our neighborhoods and diminishes our overall quality of life," the ordinance reads.
Louis J. Barletta, the city's mayor and a Santorum ally, said at a July 5 hearing of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee at the National Constitution Center that a spate of crimes in Hazleton, including a May 10 murder, were committed by illegals.
"We've seen a dramatic increase in gang-style graffiti, some of which includes threats to kill our police officers," he relayed.
Barletta said that since 2000, the population of the city had increased from 23,000 to 31,000 — mostly due to several factories that had opened in the area — although he could not determine how many of those new residents came illegally.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican, also spoke at the July 5 hearing, but made the opposite argument: "Although they broke the law by illegally crossing our borders or overstaying their visas, our city's economy would be a shell of itself had they not, and it would collapse if they were deported."
The Anti-Defamation League's Eastern Pennsylvania office issued a press release deriding the law, and the claim that undocumented immigrants are more likely to commit crimes as "offensive and wholly inconsistent with our long tradition as a nation that has welcomed immigrants and celebrated their contributions to America."
Regan Cooper, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, whose office is in the Jewish Community Services Building in Philadelphia, stated that undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit petty or violent crimes because they fear any contact with law enforcement — and possible deportation.
Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, and the New York-based Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, have said they may try and challenge the constitutionality of the law.
"There is confusion; everybody is really afraid," said Jose Roman, a spokesman for Congress de Latinos Unidos, a Philadelphia-based advocacy organization also considering a lawsuit. "What is most hurtful is the division the law has created."
The Citizens Voice, a Wilkes-Barre-based daily, reported that two Santorum campaign staffers, Eric Miller and Luke Bernstein, were involved in promoting the Hazleton ordinance and designing a Web site urging its passage (smalltowndefenders.com).
Neither Senate candidate seemed overly fazed by that fact.
Christopher Borrick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, said that Casey's stances on guns and abortion took those issues away from Santorum, and the incumbent needed to find a new issue to rally his conservative base.
"What Santorum has done is take the initiative," he said. "He's forcing Casey to react to his positions, and that isn't always the strongest position to be in."