Small Towns Clamping Down—Fear, Frustration Prompt ‘Raging Fire’ Of Ordinances Against Illegal Immigrants

Nov. 19, 2006, 3:39PM

Small towns clamping down
Fear, frustration prompt 'raging fire' of ordinances against illegal immigrants

Houston Chronicle

Small towns send big message
Illegal immigration ordinances

Talk about immigration issues In small towns and sleepy suburbs across America, growing numbers of local politicians are sending a message to the federal government: If you won't solve the illegal immigration problem, we will.

The trend started this summer in a small Pennsylvania town and swept across middle America, with at least 50 local governments considering immigration-related ordinances and roughly a dozen taking action. But nearly every local law aimed at barring illegal immigrants from working or renting homes has been stalled by a legal challenge.

In the Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch, where the City Council passed its own anti-illegal-immigrant ordinance Monday, Latino and Christian activists already are planning to sue.

Fueled by collective frustration and the ease of information-sharing on the Internet, the home-grown political movement has jumped from the Eastern seaboard to the California coast. The ''raging fire of ordinances” has the potential to profoundly change immigration law, said Mazaffar Chishti, the director of the Migration Policy Institute at New York University.

In Hazleton, Pa., the city wants to fine landlords and employers who do business with undocumented immigrants. In Taneytown, Md., the only official language is English.

Pahrump, Nev., even went so far as to ban flying a foreign flag, unless a U.S. flag flies above it.

''People are dreaming up these things with a sense of hopelessness that the government will help them,” said Michael Hethmon, an attorney with the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization that advocates for stricter immigration controls.

Frustration with feds
''It shows the tremendous frustration with the federal government in even the most remote places.”

Walter Ramseur, 78, has lived in the North Carolina town of Landis (population 2,996) his whole life, except for the two years he served during the Korean War. When his Town Council passed an English-only resolution, he was thrilled.

For years, the retired cotton-mill worker sent money to U.S. English, Inc., a lobbying group that has tried to get a federal English-only law passed.

''Quite frankly, I was absolutely amazed and appalled we couldn't get that done by our (federal) representatives,” he said. ''It went on so long, I quit sending them money. I don't know if they're any closer to getting it done or not.

''As far as the town of Landis is concerned, I agree wholeheartedly with the action they took,” he said.

It's easy for critics to downplay the trend and say these towns are just small pockets of prejudice. But immigration experts and sociologists say the ordinances reflect fear of how American life and local communities are changing, particularly with the rapid influx of Hispanic immigrants.

Animosity against the estimated 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. has been growing for years.

Though immigrants historically have settled in a half-dozen states, including Texas, California, Florida and New York, the foreign-born population doubled from 1990 to 2000 in much of the Midwest and Southeast.

Forming bonds
Ed Sidwell is just torn.

When his small city of Valley Park, Mo., passed a law in July to bar renting property to illegal immigrants, Sidwell felt compelled to comply with it. As a retired policeman and town alderman, he didn't think he had a choice.

He sent a letter to his tenants explaining the new law, asking them to determine for themselves whether they were in violation, and promising to give anybody affected plenty of time to move out. He would not evict anyone, he vowed.

Two of his tenant families moved out, Sidwell said, and he feels bad about it. He was clearly fond of the tenants' children.

''I've got three little girls who call me 'Abuelo.' I'm Grandpa,” Sidwell said. ''I've created quite a relationship with some of these people.”

Hazleton, Pa., passed the first local ban on employing or renting to illegal immigrants July 1, turning crusading Mayor Louis Barletta into an instant hero in the anti-illegal-immigration movement. Though the 2000 Census measured only 1,132 Hispanics in a town of 23,000, Barletta says that number has swelled to about 8,000.

Enjoying the spotlight
Barletta, a Republican, appears to be enjoying the limelight. His town has posted a copy of its ordinance on the Internet and keeps a running tab of the approximately 50 communities nationwide who have considered or passed local anti-immigration laws.

Legal critics say laws such as Hazleton's will not pass constitutional muster because enforcing immigration law is a federal responsibility that cannot be assumed by local governments. Hazleton's case goes to court in January, and Barletta expects it to go to the Supreme Court.

But Barletta also thinks the new law is working already, even though a lawsuit has prevented Hazleton from enforcing it.

''We have witnessed people leaving Hazleton en masse some in the middle of the night,” Barletta said. ''We suspect many are illegals. Legal citizens would have no reason to leave in the dead of night.”

Rudy Espinal, a legal immigrant from the Dominican Republic, said the mayor has made Hazleton less welcoming and has diminished its laid-back feel. He said it seems like the government is telling people where they can and cannot live.

“People feel targeted,” the 38-year-old real estate agent said.

“I always thought of America as the land of the free,” Espinal said. “It's not going to be the land of the free anymore at least not in Hazleton.”

Hardship for some
The exodus has meant economic hardship for some small-town residents, said David Verduin, a 66-year-old landlord. He paints a dreary picture of Riverside Township since his mayor and council passed a Hazleton-type ordinance in late July.

Nestled in northern New Jersey near the Delaware River, the township has a quiet, 1950s feel, he said. Verduin estimated that 1,000 immigrants, mostly from Brazil and Mexico, left shortly after the ordinance passed. The new law has turned some folks against one another, he said, and shuttered mom-and-pop stores that have been open for generations. He talks about the immigration ordinance like it's an epidemic.

Identical laws
''It's going from one town to the next; it's the same law, word for word,” said Verduin, who joined a lawsuit to stop it from being enforced. ''I don't recommend any town doing this. It's bad publicity, and it costs a lot of money.

''It just dirties the name of the town,” he said.

The local-ordinance movement is a reflection of Americans' deep anxiety about various issues, including border control, incompetent government and growing fears about the economy, said Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg.

“It's as American as apple pie,” he said. “When we are worried about our own situation, we project our feelings onto immigrants.”

Chronicle reporter Chase Davis contributed to this report.