The Live Wire

The Hazleton Case: The People vs. the ACLU
Posted by John Armor on Sep 10, 2006 - 10:00:00 PM

    Louis Barletta, the Mayor of Hazleton, Pa., has thrown down the gauntlet to those who think America belongs to anyone who can walk across the border.  The ACLU and a Puerto Rican group have taken up the challenge.  And the Mayor has upped the ante by hiring as defense counsel the former head of immigration in the Department of Justice.

    Step one in this legal clash, likely to go to the U.S. Supreme Court, was a series of three ordinances passed in Hazleton.  Propelled by several local crimes apparently committed by illegal aliens, and inspired by the Mayor, the City Council decided to fine landlords who knowingly rent space to illegal aliens.  It also decided to deny licenses to local businesses which knowingly hire such aliens.  Lastly, it declared that English would be the official language of the town.

    Step two is the federal suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the town, claiming that it was “unconstitutionally” seeking “to enforce immigration laws.”   Joining the ACLU in filing the case was the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.  This is an odd partner because legal residents of Puerto Rico are American citizens.  Laws directed at illegal aliens don’t apply to them.

    Step three in many ACLU challenges to local laws and actions is frequently capitulation by the local officials.   Often when the ACLU files suit, sometimes when it only threatens to file suit, local officials cave to the pressure, and throw in the towel.  This is due to the threat of budget-busting legal fees, both to defend the local decisions and to pay court-ordered fees to the ACLU.

    In this case, Hazleton has not caved.  Quite the contrary, it has girded its loins for battle.  It has engaged as chief defense counsel, Kris W. Kobach,, formerly Attorney General John Ashcroft’s chief adviser on immigration law.  Also, Mountain States Legal Foundation and the Federation for American Immigration Reform have volunteered staff and lawyers to defend the town’s position.

    What is the likely fate of the three ordinances?  Easiest  to predict is English as the official language.  Several states have passed such laws.  Legal challenges have been brought and decided.  So long as the town’s ordinances have the usual escape clauses for emergencies – medical care, appearances in court, etc. – this law will be found constitutional.

    The ordinance on landlords should also be upheld.  Though the ACLU claims that the town is “enforcing immigration law,” the effects of this law are entirely within city limits.  Regulation of a town’s housing stock for the health and safety of its residents has been a normal function of municipal government since the Middle Ages, in England.

    The ordinance on business licenses should also be upheld.  Again, the licensing of local businesses for the health and welfare of local residents has been a normal power of municipal governments for centuries.

    Providing for the welfare of local citizens is the very essence of municipal government.  The ACLU effort to replace government by the town council with government by an unelected judge is a direct attack on the civil rights of all citizens of Hazleton.  The court which ultimately dismisses the ACLU attack on Hazleton should also award serious fees and costs against the ACLU and the Puerto Rican group in favor of the town and its beleaguered taxpayers.

    What are the larger consequences of this legal war against Hazleton’s ordinances?  Hazleton has a population of only 30,000.  Compared to America’s more than 300 million residents, including an estimated 11 million illegal aliens, Hazleton is a drop in the bucket.

    Many other towns have picked up on what Hazleton is doing.  Some have introduced or passed similar laws.  Others are interested, but are holding back – out of the ACLU line of fire until the Hazleton case has been won.  More and more cities and states may adopt Hazleton-like laws.  The crimes and public service costs of illegal aliens would then be concentrated more and more in cities and states who make themselves “sanctuaries” for illegal aliens.

    The ultimate effect of this small case in a small town could be enormous.  It could generate from the grass roots, the pressure on Congress to deal with the problem of illegal aliens, rather than speak platitudes and duck the problem for another generation.

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About the Author: John Armor has practiced in the U.S. Supreme Court for 33 years. This article was written on behalf of the American Civil Rights Union,