On this episode of Grapple, we’ll hear a range of personal stories that speak to some of the intense and passionate feelings around immigration. First, we’ll bring you stories from the northeastern Pennsylvania city of Hazleton, which made news a decade ago for trying to crack down on unauthorized immigrants. We’ll revisit the city’s history and hear from two longtime residents who feel immigrants have taken over their hometown. Then, we’ll tell you an intriguing economic story that traces some of the intense feelings around immigration to the decline of the Rust Belt and rise of Donald Trump. Lastly, we’ll hear the stories of two undocumented chefs working in Philadelphia and how they feel stuck.
Latino Town U.S.A.
Patrons at the American Legion Bar in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. (Jessica Kourkounis/For Keystone Crossroads)
Hazleton is a small city in northeastern Pennsylvania, not too far from Wilkes-Barre and Scranton. Back in 2006, Hazleton made national headlines when it passed an ordinance called The Illegal Immigration Relief Act. The ordinance was pitched as a response to crime going up. It set out to crack down on local companies that hired undocumented workers and landlords who rented to them. Congressman Lou Barletta was Mayor of Hazleton at the time:
“My small city had become a victim of a national problem. I was losing control of my city. Hazleton faced a series of serious crimes committed by illegal aliens. Enough was enough. I had to act. I introduced the Illegal Immigration Relief Act. There was no blueprint for what we were doing. There was no manual. Others around the country would soon follow. But Hazleton led the way. Then the lawsuits came, and they told us to quit. But we didn’t. With the support of the people in Hazleton, the people in northeastern Pennsylvania and the hardworking legal American citizens around the country, we kept going. ”
But the ordinance never took effect. It was challenged by the ACLU in court and was found to be unconstitutional.
Now, just a decade later, Latinos are the majority in Hazleton. And they’re helping to revive the Rust Belt city. Empty storefronts are now Latino-owned businesses and restaurants. There are more people walking around downtown and schools are expanding to accommodate an influx of younger students.
But not everyone is happy about the changes.
In downtown Hazleton, the bar in the American Legion hall is smokey, dark, and crowded, even at 1:30 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon. The crowd is all white, mostly older...working-class men who have known each other for decades.
A lot of people there don’t want to talk about the influx of Latino immigrants — it’s not a big issue to them. But Jim Ragan had something to say about how much his hometown has changed.
“Used to be nice back in the 70s, used to be able to leave your doors open. There was drugs, but there wasn’t drugs, not like there is today. It’s just a bad area,” said Ragan. “The Spanish people took it over and the way it is now, it’s unbelievable. You can’t leave your doors open at night, you can’t relax on your porch if you live in the city. Unless your yard is fenced in and you can block their noise out, you can’t do it. They ruined it, and now there’s more of them than there is of us.”
As Ragan was talking, his friend Francis Hinkle joined in the conversation. Both of these guys are in their mid-50s and have lived in Hazleton their whole lives. They used to work together, painting houses, but Hinkle had to let Ragan go as the client base faded away.
Over the last decade or so, Ragan has seen a huge change in the city and he says it’s not for the better.
“What’s happened now over the last couple of years is all the drugs that are here in Hazleton. It’s mostly heroin. Crack — it was a year ago. Now it’s heroin. Everybody. It don’t matter what color you are. The heroin ruined everybody. But who is bringing the drugs in? It wasn’t like this until the Spanish people started coming in the neighborhood. They bring it in from everywhere. Anything you see on the news, it’s always the names — Rodriguez, Hernandez, whatever it might be — they’re the ones getting arrested for bringing this stuff in. They’re the ones that are selling it in town. Shootings, everything like that. You never heard that. Never. It’s just ridiculous. It’s ruined. This area is ruined by that.”
Hazleton is located between New York and Philly, and along major highways. It’s become a popular “source city” for heroin dealers, and it’s been tough for the city’s bare-bones police force to keep up with the drug problem, the crime problem, and some of the Latino gangs. But when you look around the country, Hazleton isn’t the only city facing these problems.
Still, Ragan says he’s done with Hazleton. There is nothing keeping him here — his kids are grown and they’ve moved away.
“Whatever it’s going to be, I’m not going to be around that long, hopefully. I’m not going to be living here that long, let’s put it that way. I’ve lived here all my life, I want to get out of here. The only safe place is down the valley area. Where I want to go, the people in that area have lived there all their lives only rent to certain people, so I know it’s a safe place. So once there’s a place open, I’m going to go there. I won’t have to put up with none of this shit, none of the people. I’ll be able to sit there on my porch, without having to listen to anything, any kind of bullshit.”
But for his friend Francis Hinkle, the decision is harder.
“My wife walks a block to work. We walk across the street to church. My mother-in-law lives a couple minutes away. My mom lives a couple minutes away. It’s pretty hard to pick up and go.”
To help trace how Hazleton has changed over the years — and what’s behind the tension between longtime residents and immigrants — we look to Jamie Longazel, a sociologist, and Amilcar Arroyo, publisher of El Mensajero, a Spanish-language newspaper.
Longazel grew up in Hazleton and is now teaching at the University of Dayton in Ohio. He’s written a book about his hometown.
Arroyo has lived in Hazleton since 1989. He was born and educated in Lima, Peru and worked at a bank there. But he lost his job after Peru slipped into an economic crisis. So at age 40, Arroyo left for the U.S. One of his first jobs was in Florida, packing tomatoes, which is what brought him to Hazleton in the first place.
“I had to start from scratch. I came prepared to do any job. I cleaned bathrooms. I washed dishes,” said Arroyo.
As Arroyo settled into Hazleton, Jamie Longazel was growing up there.
“It was a working class kind of town,” said Longazel. “My father worked in one of the local factories as many people in Hazleton have for the last several decades since the coal mining industry went under. It’s always really been struggling economically. But at the same time, it’s kind of a hardscrabble town or a town with a rugged resilience kind of attitude.”
He lived in Hazleton until 2001. Coincidentally, that’s right around the time when Latino immigration picked up.
At the time of the 2000 U.S. Census, Hazelton was 95 percent white. Ten years later, it was 30 to 40 percent white.
As many more Latinos moved into the area, Arroyo started to publish a Spanish-language newspaper.
“I’m still in business and I’m happy with our readership. The demographics in this area are definitely changing,” said Arroyo. “The Latino population is majority in the Hazleton city. [It’s] very affordable … there are jobs. Most of the Latinos that came here are from the Dominican Republic. And they move here from New York, New Jersey, or directly from the Dominican Republic. So Hazleton right now is over 15,000 Latino people. U.S. Census 2000 counted 1,100 Latinos. Census 2010: 10,000. And probably for the Census 2020, over 20,000 Latino people will be living in Hazleton.”
But a decade ago, few people would have anticipated this kind of growth.
Longazael explains what happened in 2006.
“What happened was there’s a murder of a white Hazleton resident that was allegedly committed by two undocumented Latino men who — importantly — were never actually convicted of this crime. But the murder happened. Then-Mayor Lou Barletta, now Representative Barletta, created this response. This reaction to this murder that suggested immigrants were the source of Hazleton’s struggles. So it started out with a murder. Then it became this story about undocumented immigrants committing crime in the city and causing all of these problems. Then it became a story about undocumented folks draining resources and on an on. The reality is that city resources are drained. They are struggling financially. It’s not because of undocumented immigrants. It’s because of other things. For instance, the massive tax breaks that some of the biggest employers are receiving. But it resonates because of that. As the city moves further and further into poverty, we’re seeing increases in crime. And it becomes easy to rely on these stereotypes of immigrants as crime-prone in order to kind of explain what’s going on. Even though that’s not the reality. I think it was this economic pattern was happening and immigrants were coming in. People were feeling squeezed — native born folks were feeling squeezed in a double sense, where they had decent paying jobs starting to vanish, then new folks starting to arrive in the community. And so the introduction of this narrative, of this story, that it’s undocumented immigrants who are here to harm us really caught on in that context.”
Arroyo remembers in 2006 protesting the proposed ordinance and the impact it had.
“I remember in front of the City Hall, a street — Church Street — that was the division of the city. On one side, the side to the City Hall, we were the Latinos standing there on the steps of the City Hall. On the other side were the people supporting the ordinance with signs that say: ‘Immigrants don’t belong here,’ ‘you are illegal,’ ‘go back to your country,’ and ‘illegals are criminals.’ On the other side, most of those people, including me, Hispanics. That was the division, the start of the division. Entire families left Hazleton. Most of those families were from Mexico and Central American countries. Businesses that were established here, they closed their doors. It was a nightmare: the aggression, not physical, the verbal aggression on the street. It was horrible discrimination.”
Even though Hazleton’s ordinance never took effect, Longazel still sees its powerful narrative playing out today. As if it’s been retooled into a sort of nostalgia for the Rust Belt.
“It really struck me. I remember watching 60 Minutes on TV. It was late in 2006 and they had a special on Hazleton. There was this image of the mayor being paraded down the street. And people shouting ‘keep the illegals out’ and those sorts of things. I just marveled at that; like what happened here? You know, where did this come from?” asked Longazel.
“So I started doing my research on Hazleton. As I did, it started to spiral into this national thing where laws across the country were being passed. Then Donald Trump emerges on the scene and starts using this similar rhetoric, talking about building walls and being really appealing to people in Rust Belt states who are going through this de-industrialization process. So it was just really striking to me to think of Hazleton as so central to all of this.”
Owner of South Philly Barbacoa restaurant, Ben Miller, serves customers. (Jessica Kourkounis/For Keystone Crossroads)
Philadelphia is a city with a thriving restaurant industry that has provided some jobs for immigrants working without papers.
In 2008, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that about 20 percent of the country’s 2.6 million chefs, head cooks, and cooks were undocumented.
Being an undocumented chef or cook is not always such a great gig.
There are two chefs in Philadelphia who feel stuck. They’ve been unsuccessful so far in getting citizenship, and they’ve gone years without seeing their loved ones back in Mexico. They’re too afraid to leave, and they’re worried they’d be deported when they come back to the United States.
Cristina Martinez and Ben Miller are married, and they own Barbacoa Restaurant in South Philadelphia. They’ve become outspoken activists around immigration. Not only do they employ workers without papers, but Martinez herself came into the country illegally.
“This is a system that keeps people in limbo that are here working, providing for the economy,” said Miller. And so it’s an intentional limbo. It’s like it’s a made-up limbo. My lawyer told me you just have to wait for the law to change. Nothing I can do. She’s barred for 10 years. She’s going to be undocumented. No way to change the status here.”
Martinez is barred from applying for U.S. citizenship for 10 years because of unauthorized entry. She first crossed the border illegally in 2006 and was sent back. Then she came back again in 2009 to find work to help pay for her daughter’s nursing school tuition. And since then, she hasn’t seen her family in Mexico.
“But she tries to be a mother for the immigrants that come to eat here. And in some kind of way, we’re a family with our customers,” said Miller.
Their restaurant is small, but bright and airy. There are sounds of music and conversations in Spanish and English. And on the walls, there’s artwork by Puerto Rican artists. In the kitchen, an employee makes homemade tortillas from corn meal, which she flattens in a tortilla press and puts on the grill. Miller chops the barbacoa — steamed lamb that is served up for tacos and reminds some of their Mexican customers of home.
The food at Barbacoa is so good, it made Bon Appetit’s 2016 list of best new restaurants. And with this kind of exposure, Miller and Martinez have felt compelled to be vocal about immigration. But they know their lives can change at any moment.
“We looked at the worst-case scenario,” said Miller, “which would be that everything we have built here will be closed and Cristina will be sent out of the country. We know that we can cook good food and make business, and live with integrity and live with peace and contentment wherever we are in the world.”
One of their friends, a chef, who asked us not to use his name, has lived his life under the radar without papers for the last 17 years.
“I do not drive,” he said. “Because to me that would be like exposing myself even more. I use my bicycle every day. I go to work, do my thing and I go home.”
Wanting more opportunity for his family, he left his loved ones in Mexico City, took a bus to a checkpoint and made a grueling three-day trek to the U.S. He and others walked across the desert, hiding to avoid immigration agent, and then walked some more before crossing the border illegally into Arizona.
“You had to walk in the middle of the night,” he said. It’s really dark and you cannot see anything … You just go. And you grab a gallon of water, which in the beginning is really heavy. Eventually it’s getting heavy and then lighter because you run out of water. And then wait. From there, we go to the other side of Arizona. And then went to another state — I don’t remember — and we took the airplane to Philadelphia.”
Only once did he go back to Mexico, in 2004.
“The second time, that definitely wasn’t easy,” he said. I almost see a man die in the desert. And as a human being, you can’t just let another human just die there. And I gave my water to him and tried pushing him to keep going. And I think that was the more scary part, crossing the desert with a bunch of people. And you don’t know if you’re going to make it to the other side. That’s why I don’t go back and forth because I don’t want to leave. It’s not good. It’s scary.”
Over the years, he’s tried twice with different lawyers to become a citizen. But with President Donald Trump now in office, he’s backed off trying to become a citizen because he thinks he’ll be deported if he starts the process.
While he’s been in the U.S., a whole generation of his family has grown up without him there. He’s missed the funerals of two brothers, a sister-in-law, and two nephews.
“I got two daughters,” he said. “When I left, they were two years old and a year … One of my daughters, she’s a mother now. And that was tough. My other daughter, she’s in school. And I just missed the whole entire childhood. Me not being a father and being there for them when they need me.”
Music: Tony Trov and Mike Vivas
Audio Engineers: Bob Alls and Charlie Kaier
Reporters: Annette John-Hall and Eleanor Klibanoff
Executive Producer: Stephanie Marudas
Host, Editor: Naomi Starobin
Grapple is produced by Kouvenda Media and Keystone Crossroads — a public media initiative covering both challenges and solutions for distressed cities.