10 years after immigration disputes, Hazleton is a different place

Barry Chaskin and Juan Espinal (right) are next-door business neighbors. “People have had to learn to integrate a little more,” Chaskin says. “… Get with it.”

HAZLETON, Pa. - As soon as Aida Gell moved here in 2006 with her two young sons, she wondered if she had made a mistake.

Born in the Dominican Republic, she had immigrated in 1987 to Westchester County, N.Y., where she drove a bus. But this old coal city had housing she could afford and a growing Latino presence.

As she learned within days of arriving, Hazleton had something else: a seismic new ordinance aimed at keeping out undocumented immigrants.

What Gell saw and heard that summer was discomforting for a Latina, even one in America legally. She was rattled by the edgy bearing of police in the park as 300 protesters, mostly Hispanic, raised signs reading, "We the People Includes Everyone." The Ku Klux Klan threatened to show up, and although it didn't, Gell recalls saying to herself, "Oh my God, what did I do?"

Yet, she stayed - and wound up part of a transformative decade.

This is no longer the Hazleton of anti-immigration infamy, the first community in the United States to try to build a wall of local law against undocumented arrivals, only to be smacked down as unconstitutional by federal courts.

Today, it is the city many had hoped for, and helped re-create.

It is also the city many had feared it would become, and left.

It can be held up as validation - or repudiation - of any side in the immigration debate roiling the presidential campaign and fracturing the nation.

The population of this Luzerne County city has held steady at about 25,000. But the Latino portion has surged from 4.9 percent in 2000 to about 46 percent today. A veteran police official estimated 10 percent are undocumented.

What happened here?

Reasonably priced housing and new warehouse and food-processing jobs have been strong magnets for immigrants, mostly Dominicans from New York and New Jersey, often with big families in tow. At the same time, many of Hazleton's residents, longtimers well up in years, have died. More have disappeared in the "white flight" to nearby towns in what is called the Valley.

Latinos "came fast and furious," said Joseph Yannuzzi, 78, a city councillor for much of the turbulent decade, and mayor for five years until January. "They came because it was a better life, lower-priced homes, lower-priced rent, great brand-new schools, a playground system. And there was work here.

"They just kept coming, and our white community was moving out to the suburbs. . . . A lot of my friends moved to the Valley."

The immigrant inrush has put intense pressures on the school district, the housing and job markets, and the police force. None was prepared for the demographic sea change, the language barrier, the federal scrutiny, and findings of discriminatory practices.

Yet, for all the challenges the newcomers have presented, they've helped buoy the local economy, staggered by large losses of manufacturing jobs.

Latinos "started to open every little store," said Yannuzzi. "That was a real positive."

Amilcar Arroyo, editor and publisher of Hazleton's Spanish newspaper, El Mensajero, a 56-page monthly, estimates that 100 Latino-owned businesses, each with three or four employees, have launched since 2006.

The dying Wyoming Street commercial corridor has revived. The Broad Street Business Exchange, once sparsely rented, bustles with check-cashing, calling-card, tax-preparation, and other ventures.

Aida Gell, 45, has her own business, a driving school, and her own house, not to mention the satisfaction of seeing Hazleton change.

"Now," she said, "it's more better."

Before Donald Trump, there was Lou Barletta, vowing to make Hazleton "one of the toughest places in the United States" for illegal immigrants.

Now a Republican representative in the 11th Congressional District, Barletta was Hazleton's mayor when he authored the 2006 Illegal Immigration Relief Act. Had it gone into effect, it would have fined landlords and revoked the licenses of businesses that "hir[ed] or harbor[ed] illegal aliens."

Instead, an epic legal battle erupted that reached the U.S. Supreme Court - twice - before the city accepted defeat. Last December, after protracted negotiations, Hazleton agreed to pay nearly $1.4 million in fees to the lawyers who beat back the ordinance, including Philadelphia-based Cozen O'Connor and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

"How do I feel 10 years later?" said ACLU cocounsel Witold Walczak. "The predominant feeling is anger. What happened in Hazleton was completely unnecessary. It was sheer demagoguery by Barletta and his supporters."

Parallels between the Hazleton saga and the "Latino threat narrative" with which Trump launched his candidacy are unmistakable, said Jamie Longazel, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Dayton and author of the newly published book Undocumented Fears: Immigration and the Politics of Divide and Conquer in Hazleton, Pennsylvania.

Longazel, 33, is no academic just passing through. This is his hometown. In his book, he contends that the ordinance was born of "misconceptions about Latino immigrants, and nostalgic imagery of Small Town, America," and that it masked "the real story" of a city abandoned by its mainstay light industries.

Hazleton's unemployment rate stands at 7.5 percent. Pennsylvania's is 4.6 percent; the nation's, 5.

Since 1999, the state's Keystone Opportunity Zones have lured warehouses and food processors to the Hazleton area. Among the big employers: an Amazon distribution center and a Cargill meat processing plant.

While some native-born residents think immigrants are snapping up all the jobs, Longazel said, that anger is misplaced.

He could name 10 Hazletonians, he said, who quit warehouse jobs after less than three days. "It sounds easy, but there is a strong efficiency focus, with clocks running, timing your work. The white population that is accustomed to manufacturing" hasn't found those jobs to be a good fit.

In the early 1990s, the Hazleton Area School District started a program for children who spoke English as a second language, or ESL. It had one teacher and 100 students.

Today, the district employs 28 teachers for more than 1,300 children identified through testing as English-language learners in need of special help.

Like the general population, the number of students in the system's 10 schools - 10,500 - has barely changed in the last decade. But by other measures, little is the same.

In 2007, the district was 28 percent Hispanic and 69 percent white. By 2014, it was 45 percent Hispanic and 51 percent white.

"In some schools, the minority is the majority," up to 80 percent Hispanic, said Francis Antonelli, the superintendent from 2011 through last year.

"That tipping point has already occurred."

In trying to keep up with its shifting demographics, the district hasn't moved fast enough to suit the U.S. Department of Education. In 2014, the schools were ordered to improve their services to ESL students, as well as communications with parents who speak limited English.

Language hasn't been the sole hurdle. The district has struggled to bridge a cultural chasm. For instance, Dominican parents often don't recognize compulsory attendance laws, as there are none where they came from. They also are inclined to leave education to educators.

"Some of our teachers felt they couldn't get parent cooperation. 'Why can't I get Mom and Dad in here to talk about Jose?' It was because the [immigrant] parents felt the teacher is the one to make all decisions," Antonelli said. "We had to explain: 'We need you to be in our classrooms. Join our PTA. It's crucial that we do this as a partnership.' "

Growing pains have been felt in public housing, too.

The Hazleton Housing Authority has been accused of discriminating against Spanish-speaking applicants for apartments by making them bring their own interpreters and denying them other language-related services.

Last year, under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the local authority paid a total of $18,000 to six families that had complained. It had to add bilingual workers to its staff, and provide "cultural sensitivity awareness" training.

It was also required to post signs in its offices, in English and Spanish: "Do you need an interpreter? If so, Hazleton Housing Authority will provide one at no charge."

Some "old-guard Caucasian families" say Latinos brought unprecedented violent crime to Hazleton, but they are wrong, said Frank DeAndrea, police chief for four years before leaving the force last year.

"In the '70s and '80s, Hazleton was known as Mob City," a Mafia stronghold, he said. "They proudly sold T-shirts decorated with a Thompson submachine gun. We had residents who every year were in the FBI's top 10.

"Roll forward to 2012 and there are well over 25 or 30 gangs in the city . . . and the Old Guard is saying we never had gang crime like this," DeAndrea said.

"Boy, you just choose not to remember it."

A review of Hazleton crime statistics shows that reported offenses dropped every year between 2006 and 2011, went up significantly in 2012 and 2013, and fell steeply in 2014 and 2015. The most serious crimes seesawed annually between 80 and 119.

The years with sharp upticks, DeAndrea said, coincided with a spike in crime "across the nation."

The police force is more a mirror of old Hazleton than new. Of 39 officers, only one is Hispanic, leading to perhaps predictable problems. The department has been accused of not providing sufficient interpreters in its dealings with the public. The case is pending before the U.S. Department of Justice.

"I advertised in Latino newspapers and on Spanish TV" to recruit Hispanic officers, DeAndrea said. "I reached out to Latino leaders" as far away as New York and Philadelphia. He got no takers, he said, blaming the high-risk work and modest salary.

Mayor Jeff Cusat, who took office in January, said newcomers must learn "the codes and laws" of Hazleton.

That said, "the same criminals that are bothering me are bothering the people who moved here," he said. ". . . In that respect, we are all the same."

If Hazleton's metamorphosis still seems bumpy, go to Wyoming Street and the jewelry store that has been in Barry Chaskin's family for 100 years. He and the Dominican grocer next door, Juan Espinal, know how to deal with the language barrier.

When Chaskin has a customer struggling with English, he calls in Espinal.

"People have had to learn to integrate a little more," said Chaskin. "These are the facts of life. Get with it."

From there, go to the One Community Center, a former parochial school reopened as a rec center in 2013 by the nonprofit Hazleton Integration Project, or HIP. There, hundreds of children find after-school fun, homework help, a hot snack - and unspoken lessons in getting along.

On a recent day, youthful banter in English and Spanish mingled in the air.

Bob Curry, a former Philadelphian and onetime book-chain executive, brought HIP to life with the help of his cousin-in-law - Hazleton boy-made-good Joe Maddon, manager of the Chicago Cubs.

Saddened by reports of ethnic tension in Hazleton, Maddon wanted to see for himself if the immigrant influx was harming or helping the city. Over the New Year's break five years ago, he and Curry visited some Hispanic families. They shared meals, music, and conversation, and Maddon committed himself to the cause.

A $50-a-plate fund-raiser drew hundreds of supporters, who got their pictures taken with Yankees legend Yogi Berra, a Maddon pal.

The center's budget is $300,000, a small price for what is accomplished there, supporters say.

Curry showed off a photo of a dozen children, brown and white and black, from a center production last year called Kokonut Island.

Afterward, he recalled, a Latino father approached him. "Thank you so much," the man said. "All I ever wanted in this community was to see your children and my children dancing together."

mmatza@phillynews.com

215-854-2541 @MichaelMatza1