Have Immigration Activists Won the Battle But Lost the War?

With the mid-term elections a scant six weeks away, immigration reform has largely fallen off the nation’s radar screen, a casualty of the fear and apprehension that most congressional Democrats feel about a volatile, hot-button issue that could make or break their re-election chances.

So, predictably, perhaps, last week’s decision by a federal appeals court to uphold a lower court’s 2007 ban on two controversial immigration ordinances in Hazleton, PA caused barely a ripple in the US media, even as pro-immigration activists hailed the ruling as a landmark victory, and the city’s popular mayor, Lou Barletta, who’s already exploited the issue as a springboard to higher office, promised to fight the decision “all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary.”

Remember Hazleton?  Long before Arizona became a synonym for bigotry and nativism, this tiny bedroom community located a mere 80 miles north of Philadelphia was making a name for itself as America’s “least hospitable” town for illegal immigrants.

In 2006, responding to an enormous influx of illegal alien workers from Mexico during the previous decade – in fact, about a third of Hazleton’s total population of 30,000 is said to be undocumented – the town’s city council, egged on by Barletta, agreed to pass two unprecedented ordinances.

The first mandated that Hazleton employers utilize a federal database, E-Verify, to determine if prospective workers were in the country legally. The ordinance also penalized employers found to have illegal aliens in their employ.

The second ordinance, even more controversial than the first, took aim at the town’s landlords, mandating that they verify the legal status of their tenants, and threatening them with the loss of their properties, if they failed to comply.

A federal judge declared both measures unconstitutional in June 2007.  And last week, the 3rd federal district appeals court concurred, saying Hazleton was usurping the federal government’s authority to make and enforce the nation’s immigration laws.

In a 188-page opinion, the court also ruled the city’s measures deprived aliens of their right to appeal under current federal guidelines, and could lead to discrimination against those in the country legally.

But the controversy’s far from over.  A separate appeals court in the 9th federal district has alreadly upheld an Arizona employer sanctions law modeled after Hazleton’s that was written by the same conservative legal group that’s successfully advised dozens of other states  and cities on their crackdown laws.  Eleven other states, including Utah and Oklahoma, have already passed employer sanctions laws modeled on Arizona’s, and at least a half dozen more are preparing to do the same.

That means the employer sanctions issue will almost certainly end up being decided by the US Supreme Court which last June agreed to review the 9th district court’s decision at the urging of the Obama administration.  The high court’s decision, expected next spring, is likely to result in a landmark ruling not seen in 35 years on the constitutional dividing line between federal and state authority for immigration.

Whatever happens in the end, Hazleton was clearly the catalyst for an expanding wave of anti-immigration legislation that has transformed the US policy debate.  First Bush and now Obama have ratcheted up border and interior enforcement to record levels, while the Congress has been unable to forge a bipartisan consensus on a broader comprehensive reform bill, which could include a legalization program for the estimated 11 million illegal aliens currently residing in the US.

A report released two weeks ago by the prestigious Pew Hispanic Center found that a combination of expanded enforcement and the deteriorating US economy had resulted in a two-thirds reduction in the annual flow of illegal aliens since 2007.  In addition, Pew found that about a tenth of the illegal alien population has already left the country.

With Congress unlikely to move forward on legalization after expected strong gains by the GOP in the mid-term elections, Obama’s stepped up enforcement campaign will continue.  In 2011 an estimated 400,000 more illegal aliens are expected to be deported, a whopping 60% increase over the past year.

And barring an upturn in the economy, with its renewed demand for immigrant labor, the continuing success with deportation will only steel the determination of conservatives to resist a push forward on “amnesty.”

Sadly, tiny Hazleton, even if it ultimately loses its legal battle, may have already won the war.

STEWART J. LAWRENCE is a Washington, DC-based an immigration policy specialist.  He can be reached at stewartlawrence81147@gmail.com

Stewart Lawrence is a long-time Washington, DC-based policy consultant.  He can be reached at stewartlawrence811147@gmail.com.