Thursday, March 22
The final day of the Hazleton trial opened with the news that the Hazleton City Council had passed yet another revision of its anti-immigrant ordinance the previous night. As plaintiffs attorney Vic Walczak said ruefully, “It’s a little difficult when the target keeps moving.”
Vic Walczak gave the closing argument for the plaintiffs. He spoke about the bravery of the clients, and said “it’s not easy fighting City Hall.” He acknowledged that public opinion is not necessarily with the plaintiffs in the case, but it’s “not a popularity contest. The Constitution protects everybody–even the minority.”
Walczak cited to the dictionary definition of the word scapegoat: “one that bears blame for others; object of irrational hostility.” He painted a picture of a mayor and a city council who claimed illegal immigrants were “the cause of all Hazleton’s woes, and by extension, this nation’s woes” with absolutely no investigation or evidence.
He pointed out that Hazleton does not have the financial troubles it claims, and in fact, the influx of immigrants, both legal and illegal, to Hazleton have played a large role in the revitalization of the city. In 2000, before the influx, they had a $1.2 million deficit. That is now a surplus. The town saw its largest increase in property values last year, part of three consecutive years of increases. The town’s net assets are up 18%, and the towns bond rating is AAA. Hazleton is in “pretty good financial shape.”
In passing the ordinance, Hazleton cited the toll illegal immigrants have taken on the schools and the hospital. However, students from Hazleton make up only 43% of the total number in the school district, and it has never endorsed this ordinance. The hospital, allegedly struggling under the burden of providing services to illegal immigrants, managed to turn a $4 million profit last year.
The centerpiece of Mayor Barletta’s claims for needing the ordinance has always been crime. Although the number of crimes in Hazleton has indeed increased, the population has increased by a greater percent. What does that mean? That the per capita crime rate now is actually lower than it was five years ago. (These figures came directly from charts provided by the city.) The mayor has said he “doesn’t need figures to know the story.”
By accounts on both sides, before the ordinance there had been “relative harmony” between the native-born residents in Hazleton and the new immigrants. The mayor’s PR campaign and the ordinance have put an end to that and have “promoted hostility toward the immigrant community,” said Walczak
The judge asked if the plaintiffs needed to file a fourth version of the complaint, given that Hazleton had changed the ordinance yet again. He seemed perplexed as to how to handle this aspect, saying “I’ve never had this happen to me before.” Walczak argued (in the legal sense) that unless there’s a declaration that the law that had been passed was unconstitutional, there was no legal bar to the city reverting back to the original version.
Interestingly, after months of playing to emotions about the ordinance, the attorney for the other side, Kris Kobach, stuck purely to the law in his closing statement. He stated the other side had spent “twenty minutes offering you a story. I’m not going to waste the court’s time telling a story of quoting from the dictionary. I’ll go straight to the law.” He proceeded to argue that the plaintiffs did not have standing and that Hazleton was not preempting federal law.
He made the claim that contrary to what the plaintiffs argued, it was possible to find out easily someone’s immigration status, and that it was a cut-and-dried definition. He said that the city did not need scientific evidence of the problems with illegal immigrants, just a rational belief.
Several times Kobach claimed that the plaintiffs filed prematurely, and that therefore there was no way to know if the ordinance provided adequate due process or would be applied discriminatorily. He also assured the court that Hazleton’s code enforcement office would provide a warning to a violator and not immediately enforce these provisions. The judge asked “do we look at the practice? Or the policy?” He went on to say that in every community, enforcement of the law is often “based on who you are.”
Kobach also claimed the ordinances had been “painstakingly crafted.” (An interesting claim, given how many times they’ve been revised.)
Several times the judge mentioned how “convoluted” this case is. He said that the “lawyering was very spirited” and complimented both sides on “brilliant closings.”
Given the amount of paper already submitted to the court in the case, the judge asked that each sides findings of fact be limited to 20-30 pages and not be repetitive of prior briefs. They are to be filed by May 7th.
After arguments concluded, lawyers on both sides took time to give press interviews and check out their portraits as drawn by a local artist for a national television network. Outside, as Walczak left the phalanx of cameramen and reporters to head back to his hotel, a spectator standing on the side walk approached him. “Are you with Hazleton?” he asked hopefully. After receiving a “no,” the man said “Too bad. I want Hazleton to pass this thing so that we can get one here in Scranton. We gotta get those people out of here.”
Sara in Philly