US town at center of lawsuit passes new, tougher immigration law

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Late last week, officials in the U.S. Pennsylvania town of Hazleton strengthened a local law designed to drive illegal immigrants away in a bid to defend the measure against legal challenges. The new law, approved by a vote of 4-1, increases pressure on local employers to avoid hiring illegal immigrants and raises fines for landlords who rent rooms to them. Landlords will be fined $250 a day for each illegal immigrant they rent to.

Hazleton City Council passed a new version of the Illegal Immigration Relief Act, an ordinance first passed in July that was already one of the toughest anti-illegal immigrant laws in the country. It has since been copied by more than 17 other cities. Many towns, especially small ones that are struggling economically, often blame illegal immigration for a host of ills such as rising crime and overburdened social services.

Legal employees are now allowed to sue their employers for any work lost as a result of a business license being revoked because a company was found to have hired illegal immigrants. Under the new version of the law, a business license may be revoked within three days of a violation being discovered. The previous statute would only have canceled a license at the time of renewal.

"This law is tougher in many ways," said Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta who led the campaign for the ordinance. He says the quality of life in the town of 31,000 has fallen because of an influx of illegal immigrants, mostly from Central America. The new law is designed mainly to withstand legal challenges that Barletta said could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, have already filed suit against Hazleton. David Vaida, an attorney representing opponents of the law, predicted at the council meeting that it would create a "climate of fear."

"I don't think that you want to live in a town where you are going to pit neighbor against neighbor," he said.

Hazleton's Hispanic population has reached about a third of the town's total in the last five years. An estimated 25% of immigrants are believed to be illegal, compared to approximately 4% (12 million) of the population for the entire United States.

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