Virginia, US

A recent article in CNN Money, “How Latinos are saving this former Pennsylvania mining town,” could just as well have been titled “Ironic, Isn’t It?” In 2006, the small city of Hazleton (population approximately 25,000) enacted an ordinance which sought to prohibit the employment and residence of undocumented immigrants within city limits. The law became somewhat of a national cause celebre, and copycat laws were enacted in other towns and cities across the country, most famously in Valley Park, Missouri and Farmers Branch, Texas. Now, Latinos are reportedly the driving economic force in the city of Hazleton, comprising more than a third of the population.

The Hazleton ordinance was significant because it was the first local immigration-related law in the nation to be challenged in federal court on the ground that it was preempted by federal law. In 2007, a federal district court judge in Lozano v. City of Hazelton agreed that the law was unconstitutional.

Observers expected similar state and local immigration laws and ordinances around the nation to be struck down on similar grounds, but for a time the tide seemed to be turning with the February 2008 decision of a U.S. district court in Arizona to uphold a state law, the Legal Arizona Workers Act (requiring all employers to use E-Verify and providing for the suspension and revocation of an employer's business license for knowingly and intentionally hiring unauthorized foreign workers), based on a finding that the law was not preempted by federal law. The Arizona law was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in September 2008, and subsequently by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011.

Meanwhile, the Hazleton case was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which—in contrast to the Ninth Circuit decision upholding the Legal Arizona Workers Act—held in 2010 that the Hazleton ordinance was still preempted because it conflicted with the comprehensive scheme of employment eligibility compliance set out by Congress in landmark 1980s legislation, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). The city of Hazleton sought review by the Supreme Court. Soon after issuing its decision on the Arizona E-Verify law, however, the Supreme Court ordered the Third Circuit to review its decision in light of the new precedent upholding the Arizona law. This caused the Third Circuit to vacate its earlier mandate declaring Hazleton's law to be unconstitutional.

In 2012, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Arizona v. United States, a challenge to a much more broad-ranging immigration enforcement law in Arizona. Here, the Supreme Court affirmed the federal government’s exclusive role in enforcing immigration law, effectively limiting the power of the states to act in this area. In July 2013, the Third Circuit again ruled that both the housing and employment provisions in the Hazleton law were preempted by federal law. In October 2013, the city of Hazleton filed a petition with the Supreme Court seeking to overturn the Third Circuit's decision, but their request was denied. In 2015, a federal district court judge ordered the city of Hazleton to pay nearly $1.4 million in attorneys’ fees to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Now, Latinos are apparently leading an economic revival in this former coal mining town that was “on the edge of extinction despite generous state tax incentives designed to attract manufacturing to the area. Young people who leave Hazleton to attend college are not returning, but Latino immigrants are attracted to the area thanks to the low cost of living and the proliferation of jobs that do not require a college degree.

According to CNN Money, Hazleton’s Latino population has risen from 4% in 2000 to more than 40% today. The editor and publisher of Hazleton’s own Spanish-language monthly newspaper, El Mensajero, was quoted in Philly.com as estimating that at least 100 Latino-owned businesses have opened in Hazleton since 2000. In addition, three of the area’s biggest employers are Mexican-owned multinational companies which together employ thousands of workers. Hazleton also hosts a Cargill meatpacking plant and an Amazon.com distribution center, both of which have also attracted Latino workers to the area.

Ten years after Hazleton’s then-mayor, Lou Barletta (now a member of Congress), vowed to make Hazleton “the toughest place on illegal immigrants in America,” Hazleton may now be viewed as a quintessential immigration success story. 

For guidance on state-level immigration legislation in the United States, contact Careen Shannon at cshannon@fragomen.com.