Illegal Immigrants: Rolling Up the Welcome Mat?

September 27th, 2007 by

The stalemate in Congress over legislation dealing with illegal immigration has given rise to action at the local – very local – level. A few communities with large immigrant populations have passed ordinances that try to make it difficult for undocumented immigrants to settle. These ordinances are bumping up against the federal courts, where immigrant advocates have aggressively challenged their legality. The issue is one of jurisdiction: immigration is clearly a federal issue. But the feds are paralyzed. They cannot agree on anything. Does that open the door for local action? Apparently not.
Hazelton is set in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia. It’s a small, struggling town that became a magnet for illegal immigrants. Led by recently-elected Mayor Louis Barletta, Hazelton was the first local community to take action against illegal immigrants, barring them not just from renting, but from purchasing just about anything. Here’s the ACLU’s summary of the ordinance:

Under the ordinance, landlords and business owners would have been obliged to confirm that tenants and customers are legal residents before providing them with any service, even something as simple as selling them a soft drink. The ordinance defines certain persons as “illegal aliens” using a definition so broad that it actually includes lawful residents and naturalized citizens. There is no provision for training business owners and landlords how to decipher complex immigration papers.

Enforcement of the ordinance, approved July 13, was slated to begin on September 11. Under the ordinance, property owners were subject to fines of more than $1,000 a day for renting to individuals classified as “illegal aliens,” and business owners could be fined and have their operating licenses suspended for hiring “illegal aliens” either knowingly or unknowingly. In addition, businesses would be barred from selling merchandise to “illegal aliens,” including basic necessities such as food.

Federal Judge James Munley put a stop to this ordinance back in July, prior to implementation. He wrote that illegal immigrants had the same civil rights as legal immigrants and citizens. “Hazelton, in its zeal to control the presence of a group of people deemed undesirable, violated the rights of such people, as well as others in the community.”
It would have been interesting (and tragic) to watch a community try to implement this type of ordinance. How would you enforce it? You walk into a building to rent an apartment. If you “look” native born, you have no problem. If you speak with an accent or “look foreign,” you have to provide proof of citizenship. Gee, that’s reasonable, isn’t it? In the meantime, have a look at Hazelton’s website. It opens with a letter from the Mayor: “Dear friend,” he writes, “Let me begin by saying welcome.” Yeah, right.
Rethinking Down by the Riverside
Last year, Riverside NJ, a town of 8,000 residents, enacted legislation penalizing anyone who employed or rented to an illegal immigrant. Within months, most of the hundreds of illegal immigrants left the community. The ordinance really worked. Unfortunately for Riverside, the downtown is now boarded up. The economy has ground to a halt. And the town finds itself with mounting legal bills due to lawsuits challenging the law. The legal battle has forced the town to delay road projects and the repair the town hall.
Former Mayor Charles Hilton, a supporter of the ordinance, acknowledges that the business district is now “fairly vacant.” “But it’s not legitimate businesses that are gone, it’s all the ones that were supporting the illegal immigrants, or, as I like to call them, the criminal aliens.” In other words, legitimate businesses who catered to undocumented customers became illegitimate in the process. This is more than a slippery slope: it’s a steep chute to a very dark place indeed.
The immigration problem can only be solved at the federal level, even though a solution appears well beyond reach at this time. Local communities may be tempted to seize the initiative and solve the problem in their own ways, but these efforts are doomed to fail. They are as just and equitable as a lynch mob. It wasn’t (and isn’t) fair when local communities routinely discriminated against people of color. It is not fair for communities to try to figure out who is in the country legally and who is not. We have a big problem for sure, but there are no solutions at the local level.