Small Pennsylvania Town Struggles With Immigration Debate

A small northeastern Pennsylvania town isn’t the first place you’d expect an immigrant debate, but Hazelton, PA. has just that. Hispanics made up just 5 percent of Hazleton’s population in 2000, according to the U.S. Census, but by 2010, that number increased to 37 percent, and has only grown since.

According to Hazleton Mayor Joseph Yannuzzi,  Hazelton’s cheap housing draws people away from cities, specifically New York and Philadelphia. “It’s an older town and cheaper to live here, even if you commute,” he said, “We have our problems but (the city) has been safer.”

“I came here because of the quiet, and because my family said it was a good place to live,” said Julian Figuero, the owner of El Caribe Restaurant on Wyoming Street.

Hazelton, which had been steadily declining for years, saw an increase in wealth and liveliness with the new immigrant population. But not everyone was happy about the change.

Increased crime levels, dismal job prospects, a failing city budget and xenophobic undercurrents dug a wedge between Hazleton’s immigrant community and residents born-and-bred in the Luzerne County town.

The immigrant influx ushered a slight crime increase, with undocumented immigrants being the top suspects in a brazen murder and a vicious rape of a 6-year old girl in 2006.

In 2006, then-Mayor Lou Barletta introduced the Illegal Immigration Relief Act to combat the small town’s change in population. This act prevented landlords from renting to illegal immigrants and employers from hiring them. It was not passed at first, but has been discussed continuously for the past nine years. Since 2006, the law has been debated up to the Supreme Court.

Locals worry that immigrants have lowered their wages by working for less pay, and have increased crime rates. Immigrants worry that the Illegal Immigration Relief Act will eventually be passed, causing their eviction and loss of revenue.