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The Immigrants It Once Shut Out Bring New Life To Pennsylvania Town

In the past few years, Hazleton, Pa., has gone from being known for its harsh anti-immigrant laws to 40 percent Latino.
Krista Schneider
Courtesy of Downtown Hazleton Alliance for Progress
In the past few years, Hazleton, Pa., has gone from being known for its harsh anti-immigrant laws to 40 percent Latino.

Hazleton, Pa., was just another struggling coal city until a wave of Latino immigrants came to town in 2006. It was a dark time: A wave of violent crime swept across the city. People were afraid to walk around downtown.

Some of those crimes were committed by immigrants in the U.S. illegally, leading to an unprecedented crackdown on the Latino community. Then-Mayor Lou Barletta tried to bar the door.

"We want people to know that Hazleton is probably the strictest city in the United States for illegal aliens," he said at the time.

Hazleton was determined to uproot the Latino community that was taking hold. But nearly a decade later, it's pretty clear that those efforts were in vain.

Joseph Yannuzzi, Hazleton's current mayor, was the City Council president in 2006.

"The Latino community right now is the driving force behind a lot of the new businesses that are being opened up."

"You had to be there, to live in this community where I never locked my doors, and all of a sudden you're looking cross-eyed at people, because it's legal, illegal, you don't know that," he says.

The city enacted a local ordinance that prohibited anyone from selling to, renting to or employing someone here illegally, and it imposed fines of up to $1,000 a day for those who did. (The law was later found to be unconstitutional.)

Yannuzzi insists that the law only targeted immigrants here illegally. But Latinos of all legal status saw housing discrimination, harassment and police questioning. John Pujos, owner of a local pawnshop, remembers the stigma.

"It's a shame because a lot of Latinos over here that work for a living and trying to do the best and like their community, they want to see it grow and they want to see it out of the crime," Pujos says.

A New Community Emerges

Hazleton was a difficult place to be Latino. But the job market was growing, thanks to industrial parks and meatpacking plants. The rent was affordable, and the schools were good. A community emerged and today, Hazleton is 40 percent Latino, among the highest in Pennsylvania.

The city is younger and bigger than it's been in decades. And vacant storefronts downtown have been filled by new businesses.

It's a main street transformed. Reggaeton music pours from bodegas. Bustling Mexican restaurants compete with pizzerias. And Spanish mixes fluidly with English to create a Hazleton Spanglish.

"The Latino community right now is the driving force behind a lot of the new businesses that are being opened up," says Neal DeAngelo, with the Downtown Hazleton Alliance for Progress.

A young, willing workforce has helped Hazleton climb out of the recession more quickly. Teri Ooms, who researches economic development and is the executive director of the Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development at nearby Wilkes University, looked at manufacturing companies in the city since the immigration wave. She found that their revenue, payroll and job creation all went up.

The Latino community is good for Hazleton's bottom line. That's all some residents, like Yannuzzi, the mayor, need to know.

"I think it's good for the community; it helped Hazleton establish itself again and it added life back to the community," he says.

Cooperation Replaces Blame Game

Hazleton isn't completely through the dark times just yet. There are more drugs, gangs and crime than before. And unemployment is still high, at 8.8 percent, though declining quickly.

But local businessman Francisco Torres Aranda says the community is starting to work together on these issues, rather than placing blame on one group. He points to the upcoming mayoral election as proof.

"I think before it was kinda seen as, the Latino community exists, but we don't really want to be associated with them because it might hurt our election chances," he says.

Yannuzzi lost the primary, and none of the remaining candidates are running on immigration issues. In fact, the guy he lost to printed his campaign materials in both English and Spanish.

Eleanor Klibanoff is a reporter for Keystone Crossroads, a statewide public media initiative reporting on the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eleanor Klibanoff
[Copyright 2024 NPR]