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Suman Raghunathan

The (Positive) Hazelton Effect

Towns and municipalities across the country are seeing the light of Hazelton.

No, I’m not talking about a religious revelation or the latest new age-y health remedy.

I’m talking about the growing number of municipalities following the lead of the recent federal court decision striking down the town of Hazelton, PA’s anti-immigrant ordinance as illegal and furthermore unconstitutional. What’s more, these misguided anti-immigrant laws are monumentally impractical.

Come on, people, get with the program. Targeting undocumented immigrant workers with slipshod local ordinances (or federal ones, for that matter – can anyone say SSA No-Match letters?) will do nothing to address the fundamental disconnect between current immigration laws (which actively ignore the economic contributions of immigrant workers and their families, many of whom are US citizens), downward-spiraling wages, and the reality of immigration in a country and economy whose future depends on immigrants.

Finally, I’m starting to see more local elected officials who ‘get it’. Meaning those who understand ham-handed efforts to target undocumented immigrants with local cheap shot laws rather than enforce existing worker protections will do more to push immigrant workers into the shadows and in the end hurt middle-class workers.

The latest town to see the light is Riverside, NJ – a suburb of Philadelphia where the Town Council voted 3 to 1 Monday night to rescind its own anti-immigrant law, which sought to penalize landlords and business owners for, respectively, renting apartments to and employing undocumented immigrants. Town officials estimate Riverside’s population is nearly 50% undocumented immigrant – making such a large-scale town law an exercise in futility at best and economic and community suicide at worst.

The Town Council’s ruling comes on the heels of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the People for the American Way Foundation, and the Coalition of Riverside Business Owners and Landlords, which charged the town ordinance illegally deprived Riverside’s immigrants of their rights and unlawfully allowed cities to control local businesses’ hiring decisions. Similar anti-immigrant local ordinances in Escondido, CA; Valley Park, MO; and Farmers Branch, TX have also been struck down via court rulings.

In a taste of reasoning that still managed to avoid the core of the issue – redoubling federal and local efforts to enforce unrealistic immigration laws will do nothing to better the situation of immigrant or native-born middle class workers – Riverside’s Town Council members justified their Monday night vote by saying the town didn’t have enough money to enforce the misguided anti-immigrant ordinance, nor to afford the high legal bills required to defend it in court from the lawsuit I mentioned above.

Hey, at this point I’ll take faulty reasoning – as long as it prevents local elected officials and policymakers from continuing their misguided efforts to gain political capital by targeting undocumented immigrant workers in the name of safeguarding the rights of middle class American workers. I’ve written before about how this approach fundamentally makes no sense. An enforcement-only approach will only push undocumented workers further into the ranks of a two-tier labor system. As a result, employers will have yet another reason to hold their lack of immigration status above workers’ heads – and then use this to force undocumented workers to accept shockingly low wages ($1.50 an hour for many of New York’s non-unionized grocery store workers, according to a Brennan Center report) and poor working conditions.

I’ve also written about how much sense it makes for cities like New Haven, CT to issue municipal ID cards to all residents (the city already issued over 3,000 to undocumented immigrants, green card holders, and US citizens in the last week alone) in the name of giving undocumented workers and immigrants in general a way to come out of the shadows and speak up about worker abuses and report crimes. In the wake of undocumented immigrants being identified as suspects in the horrible triple murder case in Newark, Mayor Cory Booker took the admirable step of declaring Newark a city where residents would not be asked about their immigration status by local law enforcement officers, paramedics, and firefighters.

Unfortunately, this smart attempt to continue building on much-needed community policing efforts is being stymied by the New Jersey Attorney General’s murky ruling this summer that orders police officers throughout the state to ask all potential suspect (not convicts, mind you) of serious crimes about their immigration status. The result? Incidents such as one earlier this month in Newark,when journalists working for a local Brazilian newspaper who alerted police officers to a murder were first asked about their immigration status, not about their eyewitness account in a homicide investigation.

Seems like Newark’s police officers should be learning some lessons from Hazelton and Riverside, NJ on immigration policy.


Suman Raghunathan: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 8:05 AM, Sep 19, 2007 in Immigration
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