Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta and I are almost related. His Uncle Joe dated my Aunt Melane. You could say we came close to being a butter knife away at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Barletta is now being vilified in certain quarters for combating illegal immigration. He deserves praise, not scorn. His city is a place with which I am well familiar. My parents both grew up there.
My mother is one of the "Grovich girls" from Green Street. There were eight of them, plus three brothers.
Her parents were immigrants from Yugoslavia who settled in the 1920s, drawn by mining jobs. Mom was once Miss West Hazleton High. Mr. West Hazleton High was a guy named Moose Denesevich. Names like that (or Smerconish) used to be as common in Hazleton as Smith or Jones.
My dad's family came from Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 1800s. My dad grew up outside of Hazleton, in a tiny mining town called Audenried. His father was a mine inspector, responsible for 300 men, having risen from the ranks of laborer. Both of my grandfathers had black lung. That often came with the territory.
With so many cousins to visit, I spent many weekends in my youth traveling to Hazleton. So I know the town well, but visit so intermittently that I notice changes in a way different from the locals.
The Hazleton of my parents' upbringing has vanished. It's no longer a hardscrabble, Rockwellian community anchored by churches, social clubs and close-knit neighborhoods. King coal is long gone, and today's new arrivals aren't from Eastern Europe. They are often illegal immigrants from Mexico.
Not too long ago I visited my great-grandfather's grave. On his tombstone it says "Cmepnkahnyb." Believe it or not, "Smerconish" was a way of Americanizing the name.
The point is, my forefathers realized that the way to succeed was to adapt, to learn the language, to stay out of trouble with the law. And, yes, even to change one's name. Today, these points are ignored.
And not just in Hazleton. This city is facing many of the same crises described by Patrick Buchanan in State of Emergency. Consider:
There are at least as many illegal aliens now in the United States as all English, Irish and Jewish immigrants who came to America in 400 years. Every month, the border patrol apprehends about 150,000 illegal aliens, more than the number of troops in Iraq. And one in every 12 people breaking into the United States illegally has a criminal record.
The key word here is "illegal." Mayor Barletta knows this. He told me that he was pushed into action after a May 2006 killing, for which four illegal immigrants await trial. His plan is to stem the illegal influx by punishing landlords who rent to illegals and employers who hire them, and by making English the official language. A trial is under way in Scranton because of a challenge brought by the ACLU.
Vic Walczak is the ACLU's state legal director, and in his opening statement, he said something significant: "Law regarding immigration can and must be passed only by Congress." Well, therein lies the problem. Congress has abdicated its responsibility, heaping problems on local officials like Mayor Barletta.
We're not talking about New Mexico, Texas or Arizona. We don't live in a border state. And yet, look what is going on all around us, thousands of miles from the nearest Mexican border. In Allentown, the city council is considering a referendum that would enable the training of police officers to enforce federal immigration laws. In Morristown, N.J., there is a similar effort. In Elsmere, Del., where registering a vehicle requires a Social Security number, the City Council adopted an ordinance to combat illegal immigrants' driving cars with out-of-state tags. And of course, in South Philadelphia, Joe Vento, proprietor of Geno's Steaks, is on the receiving end of a discrimination complaint over his "speak English" notice.
Talk about a sign of the times. Our borders are porous, and Congress won't act. The closest they've come was to approve 700 miles of fencing, but without funding. Meanwhile, the quality of life in Hazleton declines.
"The bigger picture is we need people in Washington who will fight this on the federal level in the way that we think it should be fought," Barletta told me. "That is: If you're not here legally, you need to get to the back of the line and do it the same way everyone else has."
He means people like my grandparents, who realized all of their dreams in Hazleton.