Residents of the small city of Hazleton, PA, face deeply personal choices in this November’s election which features a homegrown candidate with hardline-immigrant views in a city that has been changed in deep-rooted ways by… an influx of immigrants.
Hazleton’s “transformative decade,” is how former police chief Frank DeAndrea puts it.
And transformative it has been. About 130 kilometers (80 miles) northwest of Philadelphia, at the intersection of two major highways, Hazleton has some 25,000 residents. In 2000, 5 percent of them were Hispanic. Today, 50 percent of them are.
This remarkable surge of immigrants, mostly from the Dominican Republic, came to Hazleton after they discovered that both the cost of living and crime rate were lower in the former coal town.
“If a man and his wife both work, which they generally do here, if they’re both working in a plant… Where would you be better served for that $11, $12 an hour?” posits Bob Curry with the Hazleton Integration Project. “You want to try and do that in Newark? You want to try to do that in the Bronx? You want to try to do it anywhere near New York City? … Can’t do it.”
“It was a quiet, quiet town,” recalls Amilcar Arroyo, who moved to Hazleton from Peru 30 years ago. “Most people living here at that time were elderly people. At 6 o’clock [p.m.], it was quiet and during the day too.” Arroyo owns El Mensajero International, Hazelton’s Spanish language newspaper.
Yet, says former chief DeAndrea, who observed Hazleton’s transformation as a Pennsylvania state trooper, the influx sparked fear – fear of crime, fear of overrun schools and social services and simply, fear of the unknown.
“And fear is an ugly thing. ...it doesn’t only happen to a human being, it happens to a community. A community becomes so afraid they can’t move forward,” he said.
Challenging incumbent Bob Casey (D) for one of Pennsylvania’s two Senate seats, Hazleton native Congressman Lou Barletta is, according to his own website, “a national figure in the fight against illegal immigration.” He was an early supporter of President Donald Trump, who encouraged him to run for the Senate.
“We need Lou Barletta,” President Donald Trump told a packed arena in Wilkes Barre, PA, in early August.
Barletta is well known in Hazleton where he owned the largest pavement marking company in Pennsylvania before selling it in 2000 after he became Hazleton’s mayor.
During his time as mayor in 2006, he introduced the Illegal Immigration Relief Act after two undocumented immigrants from the Dominican Republic were charged with murdering a Hazleton father of three.
The act penalized and fined employers and landlords for hiring and renting to illegal immigrants.
Arroyo recalls it as a dark time. “In one of the rallies of Mr. Lou Barletta, people were attacking me. Verbally attacking me. They called me traitor. They called me ‘Go back to your country,’ ‘Go back to Mexico,’ ‘Illegal,’ and I was an American citizen.”
The ordinance was quickly challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The suit went up to the Supreme Court, which in 2014 refused to take the case, letting stand lower court decisions that struck down the measure.
Dorothy George is a longtime Hazleton resident who won’t reveal how she will vote. “When I look back 50 years ago, it was a safer community, and not necessarily that is caused by the Hispanic influx, but just I think the whole United States has changed in that respect,” she said when VOA caught up with her at her workplace.
After the coal economy bottomed out in Hazleton, local lawmakers offered tax incentives hoping to attract manufacturing companies, distribution centers and warehouses. They began to set up plants near Hazleton and the warehouse economy was launched.
“The new economy is based on warehousing because of the great dot com. All of the big major players selling things have warehouses and they want to ship it the most efficient way possible. Trucking is the way they do it. And we’re at an ideal location.” says Curry referring to Hazleton’s location at the intersection of interstates 80 and 81.
At the same time, dozens of Latino-owned businesses have opened along the streets of Hazleton from restaurants selling homemade Mexican and Dominican food to small grocery stores.
“My newspaper exists based on two kind of businesses: Latino businesses and American businesses, American businesses that want to get to that growing market, which is a Latino market,” Arroyo says.
To Curry, whose Integration Project provides after school care for 1,000 children each week, the two communities are like a pair of railroad tracks, extending into the distance without ever meeting. The children, he thinks, might bring them together.
“And when Johnny goes to his little league baseball game and Jose gets a homerun and your team goes to the championship, you’re not so anxious to see Jose sent back to that ‘whatever he came from’ story. Life happens and when life happens, people’s mentality, their worldview, their outlook will change.”
Referendum on immigration
“A lot of ethnic people don’t like Lou Barletta,” said Barry Chaskin from behind the counter of his retail establishment. He is a white Republican voter. “I think that everybody had a wrong concept of what he was trying to do. It wasn't immigration. It was illegal immigration that he fought.”
Connie Cramey, a “Republican conservative Latina,” does like Barletta. VOA caught up with her as she was knocking on doors for her candidate. “I’m pro-America first and I believe that he’s too,” Cramey said.
Cramey says she moved to the U.S. at the age of 15 from El Salvador.
“Nobody is closing the doors to diverse communities, different nationalities. I believe if the latino or the Hispanic community wants to be part of America, first of all, you’ve got to come here legally and then … learn English, and I don’t see that as anything discriminatory or racist,” she said.
Arroyo says that if the Latino population got more engaged in the political life of the city, a “sleeping giant,” would wake up. For now small percentages of the Latino community vote.
“We have to get more involved in local politics,” he says.
Barletta is trailing Casey in the polls. Real Clear Politics’ average of polls gives Casey a comfortable 14.8% margin statewide. But how the vote will go in Hazleton, part of Luzerne County that went for Trump in 2016, is anyone’s guess.
“I know them both,” Chaskin said of the two Senate candidates. “I would hope [Barletta] does have a chance and some people in town would agree with me. Others would not…”
As much as anywhere in the country, the vote in Hazleton is also about President Trump’s unbending immigration policies – including his short-lived “zero tolerance” policy that separated immigrant families at the border.
“I don’t know who's right. That's why we do these things,” Chaskin continued. “That’s why we vote - to see what the people really want.”