Why Wait For Federal Government? Local Officials Bring Immigration Debate Home

Cities, states round up illegals, punish employers, shut down Spanish-language municipal Web sites.

Sheriff Richard K. Jones' scorn for illegal immigrants isn't subtle.

Because of him, a bright yellow sign stands outside the Butler County, Ohio, jail proclaiming, "Illegal Immigrants Here." Posters and billboards throughout the county are emblazoned with the message: "Hire an Illegal - Break the Law!" The warning also features a picture of the sheriff, complete with furrowed brow, arms crossed and gun visibly on his hip.

Sheriff Jones is just one example of citizens at the local level taking immigration matters into their own hands. As the nation awaits a federal decision on immigration reform (see "House Stalls Immigration Reform; Compromise Bill Not Likely Before November Elections"), several municipal officials have stopped waiting and started cracking down on illegal immigrants, which they say is in the public's best interest.

Jones has actively pursued illegal immigrants in his county. He's complained that they're a drain on taxpayers. He's rallied against the government's hemming and hawing over the issue. He's encouraged citizens to boycott businesses that they suspect employ illegal immigrants. Now, he's taking even more action.

In April, the sheriff's department, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, rounded up 10 illegal immigrants who had outstanding warrants or were wanted for false documentation. Since then, Jones has launched a media assault against employers of illegal immigrants and the undocumented workers themselves.

In his blog, Jones wrote that the sheriff's office has been flooded with tips regarding businesses that employ illegal immigrants. He cautions business owners that if they employ illegals, they will be raided. "You know who you are, and we're coming," he wrote.

Jones isn't the only official attempting to curtail the presence of illegal immigrants — they're not welcome in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, either, according to Mayor Lou Barletta. The Republican mayor introduced the Illegal Immigration Relief Act, an ordinance intended to punish those enabling illegal immigrants.

"Let me be clear: This ordinance is intended to make Hazleton one of the most difficult places in the U.S. for illegal immigrants," Barletta said in an open letter to the city. The measure has been tentatively approved but will be have to undergo two more votes before passing.

And his message is, indeed, clear: A friend to illegal immigrants is a foe to the city and will be treated as such.

Under the law, the city plans to deny new and renewed permits to companies that employ illegal immigrants. The expectation is that many businesses might change their views of illegal immigrants, seeing them go from cheap labor to a liability. Additional punitive measures would hold landlords accountable as well. The city would issue a $1,000 fine for each illegal tenant found on a property owner's land.

The push for anti-illegal immigrant legislation in Hazleton stems from a perception that illegals are responsible for much of the city's crime. Barletta cited recent high-profile crimes committed by illegal immigrants as the reason for his tough stance. Two illegal immigrants from the Dominican Republic were charged with the murder of a 29-year-old man, and a 14-year-old illegal immigrant was arrested for firing a gun on a playground.

"Illegal immigration leads to higher crime rates, contributes to overcrowded classrooms and failing schools, subjects our hospitals to fiscal hardship and legal residents to substandard quality of care, and destroys our neighborhoods and diminishes our overall quality of life," the proposed ordinance states.

Among the biggest complaints of Barletta and his supporters is the resistance or inability of illegal residents to learn English. The act would establish English as the official language of Hazleton. Consequently, city documents would only be available in English; citizens applying for a permit would have to do so in English.

Other states are navigating a similar course of action. Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. recently received flak for shutting down a Spanish-language state-owned informational Web site after only two weeks. The site, www.espanol.utah.gov, contained selected pages from the state's Web site with translated information about taxes, health services and driver's licenses.

Critics speculate that the governor overreacted to some complaints, shutting down the site in response to mounting tension about immigration reform. The governor defended his actions, claiming uncertainty as to whether the translations of the documents violates Utah's 2000 state law declaring English the official language. A limited version of the site, with fewer pages translated into Spanish, was launched last week.

Despite moderate support for an "English-only" policy, many citizens are concerned that it will widen the cultural breach, possibly alienating legal immigrants. Others claim that these steps are racist. Barletta countered, saying anti-immigration laws are not targeted at a specific race but all illegal immigrants.

Many legal residents, however, fear the backlash from the immigration debate. Citizens are worried that just because of the way they look, they may be treated unjustly or harassed despite their legal status.

"Landlords are going to shut their doors to anyone who may look or sound Latino," Flavia Jimenez, an immigrant policy analyst at the National Council of La Raza, told The Associated Press. "On the other hand, landlords may attempt to actually determine whether a person is undocumented or not and make multiple mistakes because of the complexity of immigration law."

In order to ensure immigration issues are dealt with properly, state and local officials should work closely with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to ICE spokesperson Marc Raimondi.

"Immigration is a very hot-button topic, and it's something that everyone has an opinion on and they're very passionate about it, and that's why it's at the top of the interest list," he said. "But you also need to remember that it's not going to get solved overnight — but it will be solved."

And while the public and the government continue to debate on immigration reform, local officials will no doubt keep trying to extend their reach. But for some, like Barletta, the issue is clear-cut: "To illegal immigrants and those who would hire or abet them in any way, I say your time is up," he said. "You are no longer welcome."