The city tried to ban illegal immigrants in 2006.
Over a decade ago, Hazleton tried to stem the tide of immigrants flooding the city by prohibiting residents from employing, housing or selling anything to unauthorized immigrants. The ban never went into effect and was eventually struck down by the courts, costing the city $1.4 million in legal settlement fees. And it didn’t stop Latino immigrants from settling in Hazleton: the city is now over 50 percent Latino.
But striking down the ban also didn’t stop anti-immigrant sentiment from spreading. Lou Barletta, then-mayor of Hazleton, was elected to Congress, where he campaigned hard for President Donald Trump. Trump has promised to build a wall along the southern border, remove federal funds from sanctuary cities and deport millions of unauthorized immigrants.
Déjà vu for Hazleton’s Latino community
Rafael Polanco, owner of Polanco General Services, lived in Hazleton in 2006 when the ban was first tried. He says the fear and uncertainty in the community feels similar, but “we are a much bigger community now here in Hazleton.”
“We participated in the Day without Immigrants and all the stores on this street closed,” said Polanco. “Without immigrants, Hazleton wouldn’t have business or people buying houses or anything.”
He says most of Hazleton’s Latino residents are there to work hard, live within the law and find a better life. And those that aren’t?
“I agree 100 percent that if somebody has a criminal record, [they] need to be deported,” he said. “But it’s the person [who] works here and they don’t have any problem with authority — give them the opportunity to continue working in the country.”
Law abiding non-citizens?
Both Barletta a decade ago and Trump today insist they are only going after people living in the country illegally. That’s why Manuel Payano isn’t worried by the current administration’s approach to immigration.
“I became a citizen, my children became citizens, we did it all the legal way,” Payano, a Dominican by birth, said. “I don’t mess around with cheating the system at all, not with [the] IRS, not with welfare or disability or nothing. I am straight.”
Payano says he supports Trump’s plan to build a wall and curb illegal immigration.
“I feel like Mr. Trump, he’s going to return the [feeling of being] proud to be American, and I love that,” he said. “If you’re straight, you don’t have to be afraid.”
In his accented English, that sentence rhymes.
“I like that,” the 62-year-old said with a grin. “If you’re straight, you don’t have to be afraid. I’m going to keep that.”
And yet, for many, fear reigns
Luis Polanco (no relation to Rafael) moved to Hazleton a few years after the 2006 ban was struck down. He says Trump has been bad for business.
“The police made an arrest at Second Base restaurant and right away, [people at the restaurant] spread the rumor, ‘oh, immigration is in the area,’ and all the business that Saturday was empty,” said Polanco. “People just run away. Even people who [are legal residents] started to run away.”
Polanco says there have been rumors about immigration raids at the warehouses and meat-packing plants that employ large numbers of immigrants, but they’ve been just that — rumors. He worries about what will happen if this level of fear continues.
“You can’t just stop your living because you’re thinking that immigration [officials are] always around the corner and going to deport you,” said Polanco. “People are scared to even go out to the places where they will get the right information and not just the rumors.”