Day By Day

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Hazleton on Trial

Testimony has concluded in the ACLU’s suit against Hazleton’s “Illegal Immigration Relief Act.” A federal judge will hand down his decision in June. It will probably go against the town. In the meantime we can consider some of the things that have come to light regarding the case.

Steve Chapman, writing in Townhall, notes:

The trial… has not shed flattering light on the competence of those who drafted the law. Mayor Lou Barletta said he was compelled to act when a resident was shot to death, allegedly by two illegal immigrants.

But he had trouble explaining why, if illegal immigrants generate crime, they have been implicated in only about 20 of the 8,500 felonies committed in Hazleton in the last six years. ACLU attorney Witold Walczak also pointed out that amid this supposed crime wave, the city has reduced the size of the police force, despite having a budget surplus.

If Hazleton’s illegal immigrants are prone to crime, they’re the exception. Despite the growth of illegal immigration in the last decade, crime rates have dropped sharply across the country. This may not be a coincidence. In every ethnic group, reports a recent study by Ruben Rumbaut and Walter Ewing for the American Immigration Law Foundation, young men born in the U.S. are far more likely to wind up in prison than those who come here later.

In Hazleton, as elsewhere, the main reason Latino foreigners come is to work and stay out of trouble. In fact, those qualities are the same ones that get them accused of stealing jobs. Even those immigrants who work off the books contribute to the economic health of local businesses by buying goods and services. Hazleton has seen an expansion of its tax base.

So it’s too simple to blame all the city’s newfound troubles on illegal immigrants.

Read the whole thing here.

Chapman argues that the anti-immigrant legislation does not reflect prejudice so much as the strain on local resources caused by the sudden influx of thousands of new residents. He calls on the federal government to stem the tide of immigrants.

But then Julia Vitello-Martin, writing in the Wall Street Journal, reports:

Mayor Lou Barletta argued that some 10,000 undocumented immigrants have ruined Hazleton’s quality of life: Violent crime has doubled in the past two years, unreimbursed medical expenses at local hospitals have jumped 60% and the annual school budget for teaching English as a second language has soared to $875,000 from $500. Yet business owners and landlords argued the opposite–that immigrants had revitalized Hazleton’s moribund economy, filling once-vacant apartments and patronizing once-declining businesses. As a result, Hazleton’s budget has been in the black for three years–a far cry from its $1.2 million deficit in 2000.

So apparently the influx has had a beneficial effect on local resources. Ms. Vitullo-Martin notes that this has been a general pattern in other cities that serve as immigrant destinations.

Read it here.

So, if it isn’t an upsurge in crime, or depletion of local resources, then what is left? Sheer prejudice? I think not.

A friend of mine from Hazleton explains:

[T]he thing is not the sheer number of crimes, but the types of crimes that were committed. Very public ones, very frightening ones. It was the couple of drive-by shootings and, I think especially, the melees and assaults and alleged rapes in public schools, and the brandishing of guns in playgrounds and malls. There may not have been all that many of these events, but their symbolic import is out of all proportion to their actual numbers: they are the sorts of things that seem to indicate that anarchy is actually engulfing the place. And the cultural issues matter, too. It really does matter when people don’t bother to use garbage cans, and befoul neighborhoods that people had once at least tried to keep reasonably clean. The loud music that makes sleep difficult, the smarmy sexual come-ons to unescorted women on the streets. They matter. They aren’t felonies. In fact, they’re standard operating procedure in the barrios of San Juan. But they matter.

Indeed they do! Behavior that outrages mainstream middle-class sensibilities is an important element in quality-of-life issues and a clash of cultures can explain a lot of the anti-immigrant reaction, but even this is something of a fantasy.
My friend writes:

I see Hazleton as a place where a lot of ordinary, middle-to-working class people wanted nothing other than to be allowed to live the way they had lived for years.

I’m sure that a lot of people see things that way. However, as Ms. Vitello-Martin, points out — change was already taking place before the immigrant influx. The downtowns of small cities were already hollowing out as businesses and people moved away, and rather than precipitating decline, immigrants were responding to it, flocking to places were property values and rents had already declined to the point where homes were now affordable even to recent arrivals in the country. Immigrants are being blamed for a decline that they did not cause, and to which they may well represent a solution.

So what we are left with is outraged sensibilities, and as my friend pointed out, they do matter. The question is, do they matter more than the aspirations of the newcomers and the economic revitalization they represent?

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