Pennsylvania: Hazelton's alien law one of several stirring national debate

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon May 28 13:44:29 UTC 2007

Hazelton's alien law one of several stirring national debate


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By *Mark Houser* <mhouser at>
*Sunday, May 27, 2007*

Spurred by the efforts of a small Eastern Pennsylvania city to keep out
illegal aliens, a federal judge is preparing what likely will be a landmark
ruling on one of the country's most controversial topics. At issue is
whether Hazleton -- a city of about 30,000, including thousands of Hispanic
immigrants who have arrived in the last few years -- can fine employers who
hire illegal aliens and landlords who rent to them. U.S. District Judge
James Munley heard the nine-day trial in Scranton in March and is expected
to rule this summer.

Whatever he decides isn't likely to close the question. Both sides have said
they are ready to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court. The dispute,
which has made Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta a minor celebrity, is just one of
several triggered by recent waves of Latin American immigration. Critics
denounced the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last month, when the
agency sued the Salvation Army for discrimination after a Boston-area store
fired two workers for not learning English. And Kansas this month became the
27th state -- the third in less than a year -- to declare English its
official language.

"People are getting more and more nervous with everything they're seeing
daily. Everywhere they go, they find people who can't speak English," said
Mauro Mujica, chairman of U.S. English, a Washington advocacy group
promoting laws like the one in Kansas. Mujica said immigrants should have to
learn English, as he did before coming here in 1963 from Chile to study
architecture. He settled permanently, married an American and became a

"It doesn't make sense to automatically say, 'Hey buddy, you can take your
driver's exam in 30 different languages.' That would be money far better
spent teaching English," Mujica said. Riding a wave of popularity for his
tough stance against illegal aliens, Barletta, a two-term Republican mayor,
easily won his party's primary this month. Barletta also entered the
Democratic primary as a last-minute write-in candidate, and handily beat a
former mayor who had been alone on his party's ballot.

What's happening in Hazleton is not the first time immigration has upended
Pennsylvania politics. German-speaking settlers -- the Pennsylvania Dutch --
voted Benjamin Franklin out of the colonial assembly in 1764 for questioning
their loyalty. Franklin's opponents prodded the German immigrants, who then
constituted a third of Pennsylvania's population, with an essay in which
Franklin called them "boors."

"Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens,
who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying
them... ?" Franklin wrote. Franklin might be relieved to see his state
today. Only 9 percent of Pennsylvania's population speaks a language other
than English at home, about half the national rate, according to 2005 census
estimates. Forty percent of those, or about 400,000, are Spanish speakers,
with 6 in 10 saying they also speak English well. Those who can't the
language face obvious barriers finding work. Which barriers are reasonable,
and which are not, is hotly disputed.

In the Boston Salvation Army case, the Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission is challenging the charity's English-only policy under Title VII
of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars workplace discrimination on the
basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin. The commission
interprets national origin to include language, and holds that employers can
restrict employee communications to English-only when doing so is necessary
for business. The commission receives 100 to 200 complaints each year
alleging discrimination because of an English-only rule. Fewer than five
complaints a year lead to lawsuits, said spokesman David Grinberg. Those few
can be quite contentious.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., told the commission's director at an
appropriations hearing this month that its lawsuit against the Salvation
Army is "an astonishing waste of your time, and contrary to everything I
know about the importance of achieving unity in our country." The Supreme
Court has not ruled on English-only restrictions, but federal courts have
tended to side with employers. Courts long have held that employers can't
justify firing black workers by claiming their customers don't like blacks.
But a New York federal court in 2005 ruled that a perfume retailer could
forbid employees from speaking Spanish when customers might overhear them,
for fear it would drive away business.

"There are fine lines to be drawn, in some cases, as to what's customer
preference and what's a legitimate business need," said Dianna Johnston, an
assistant legal counsel for the commission, who helps set agency policy on
Title VII issues. Some courts have claimed the commission's guidelines
overstep Title VII. A Philadelphia federal court did so in 1998, when it
struck down a discrimination lawsuit brought by Jessie Kania, a housekeeper
fired from her job at a church for speaking Polish.

Pennsylvania is not one of the 27 states with official English laws, which
generally strip funding for the use of other languages in official
government business. Most laws have exceptions such as public safety,
courtroom interpreters and adherence to federal rules. Alaska's law has been
ruled unconstitutional by the state's highest court. Arizona voters last
fall approved a revised law after an earlier version was ruled
unconstitutional. Some Republican legislators have pushed for a federal
English law for more than a decade without success. Along with fines aimed
at employers and landlords of illegal aliens, Hazleton officials passed
another ordinance making English the official language for city business. It
already is in the schools.

Hazleton Area School District has seen its English as a Second Language
program quadruple to more than 800 students in the last five years. In some
elementary schools, Spanish-speaking students make up nearly one-quarter of
total enrollment. "It's not just they're learning our ways. We have to learn
their ways a little bit, too," said Daniel Cassarella, director of
elementary education. A lifelong Hazleton resident, Cassarella, 61, has a
special insight into the city's new demographics.

His wife, after taking time off to rear their children, took a part-time job
in the district about 17 years ago helping its lone ESL teacher. Now she is
one of 22 full-time ESL instructors. "And we need more," Cassarella said.
"We're really understaffed." After experimenting with bilingual education
programs, California, Arizona and Massachusetts have banned them in recent
years, requiring immigrant children to be taught solely in English.

Supporters of bilingual education tout studies showing that taking some
classes in their native tongue helps students learn English faster.
Opponents claim test scores of immigrants in English-only schools are rising
faster than they did under bilingual programs. Pennsylvania schools can
offer bilingual education, but few do, according to Education Department
spokeswoman Nicole Rob.

Although it is out of fashion now, bilingual education got its start in
Pennsylvania with the help of an unexpected ally -- Ben Franklin. Years
after the Pennsylvania Dutch helped kick Franklin out of office, he and his
detractors reconciled. In 1787, a month before the aging statesman persuaded
quarrelsome state delegates to adopt the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia,
Franklin donated a large sum to found America's first bilingual college in
Lancaster. The school built to assimilate the state's German-speaking
minority was named Franklin College -- now Franklin and Marshall -- after
its benefactor.

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