THE BLOG

Immigration Still a Hot Topic in Hazleton, Penn.

10/26/2008 05:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

HAZLETON, Penn. 3:30 p.m. -

With a population of under 25,000 people, Hazleton, Penn. is not exactly the easiest place to find internet access. The town is full of, however, many people who are passionate about politics and the upcoming elections. The economy and health care dominate many conversations surrounding the upcoming presidential race, but illegal immigration remains a contentious issue locally.

After I dropped Kristina off at the gun picnic yesterday morning, I headed over to Mayor Lou Barletta's campaign office on Broad Street, Hazleton's main drag. Barletta became the mayor in 2000 and is currently running for Pennsylvania's 11th Congressional District against U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski. There wasn't one resident who I talked to who didn't think Barletta would win, largely due to the national name recognition he gained after making Hazleton the first local government to pass immigration-related ordinances in 2006. Preventing local businesses from hiring and landlords from housing illegal immigrants, the "Illegal Immigration Relief Act" was struck down the following year, and Barletta has vowed to appeal the decision.

Barletta's office was practically empty apart from three people sitting in the front window making phone calls to local residents and two campaign staffers going in and out. One wall was decorated with crayon drawings from Ms. Lamanna's class touting support for the mayor and thanking him for having come read to them recently, signed by students with last names such as Garcia and Nunez.

There was no indication of any endorsement for either Sen. McCain or Sen. Obama, and later campaign spokesman Shawn Kelly told me that, indeed, Barletta has not and does not intend to make an endorsement. "We are focused on our own campaign," he said. Kelly also said that a local poll conducted a few weeks ago put Barletta five points ahead in the race.

Bob Klemow, 60, a retired elementary school teacher and lifelong Hazleton resident, thinks Barletta used the immigration issue as a political ploy to gain attention for his upcoming election. "He has switched to politics of hate and fear, and tried to get everybody to hate everybody," he said. "Barletta decided to play bigotry - and it worked."

A survey done by the Pew Hispanic Center found that the Hispanic population of Luzerne County, in which Hazleton is located, increased by 222 percent from 2000 to 2007.

By ESME E. DEPREZ