As presidential nominee Donald Trump continues to berate a California judge for his Mexican parentage and alleged conflict of interest in presiding over a case against Trump University, a more nuanced conversation is taking place in small cities throughout the United States.
Places like Hazleton, in Eastern Pennsylvania, are struggling to adapt to changing demographics that have resulted in more Latinos moving into previously white areas.
That struggle for acceptance, and the subsequent backlash, is the subject of a new book by Hazleton native Jamie Longazel. “Undocumented Fears,” published by Temple University Press, dives deep into the ongoing conflict between Latino immigrants, both documented and not, and residents of the former coal mining city.
Located about 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Hazleton once housed lucrative mines that attracted immigrants from Western and Eastern Europe in the 19th century. Owners of those mines built churches, schools and patch towns outside the city center, which have since become boroughs like the one Longazel once called home.
As the demand for coal dropped after World War II, Hazleton’s economy stagnated until manufacturing moved in to take its place. The Dunlap Silk Corporation opened a 600,000 square foot plant in the early 20th century. It was considered the world’s largest silk mill at the time, and set the stage for Hazleton’s reputation as a manufacturing center.
Despite business investments, the wealth of Hazleton’s plants failed to trickle down to its residents, who mostly worked factory jobs with little room for advancement. Longazel was born to one of these families. His grandfather worked in a coalmine for some years, and his father continues to work at one of the several manufacturing plants that replaced mines. Growing up, Longazel said that he always considered his family “middle class,” but he has since come to a very different understanding of his working class neighborhood.
“This is a relatively poor area,” Longazel said. “The legacy of those coal mining days is still around and it’s still very strong. That’s what makes this whole immigrant scapegoating thing especially ironic. Both groups have a hard time.”
Now a university professor and published author, Longazel sees an inherent connection between the city’s struggling economy and its deep suspicion of immigrants.
It all started when Latino labor moved into Hazleton around 2002. Meatpacking plants like the one owned by Excel Corporation opened up and touted its minority friendly hiring practices. Non-white workers poured into Hazleton and the once homogenous city of 25,000 swelled to more than 30,000 residents within a few short years. Many of the workers came from South and Central America, but several more were of Caribbean descent.
Tensions erupted almost immediately. Violent crime and drug use soared. A convenient narrative soon developed blaming newcomers for Hazleton’s woes. But the story being told in city council meetings and local media wasn’t exactly accurate.
“There was not much truth to any of the claims being made,” Longazel said. “It had always been a struggling, working class kind of town. It was disturbing that so many people forgot that.”
In 2006, Hazleton made national headlines when its former mayor, and now state senator, Lou Barletta proposed a bill that made it a crime to house and hire undocumented immigrants. It also made English the city’s official language. The “Illegal Immigration Relief Act” drew national attention from supporters and critics alike.
“I will get rid of the illegal people. It’s that simple. They must leave,” Barletta, the grandchild of at least one immigrant, told the Washington Post in 2006.
As if on cue, the American Civil Liberties Union sued and in 2010 a federal court declared the law unconstitutional. But in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Senate Bill 1070 in Arizona and ordered a review of Hazleton’s ordinance. A court date has not been set.
Longazel watched most of this play out from the safety of academia. The future sociology professor left his hometown in 2001 to pursue college and then graduate school, but he was disturbed by what was happening back in Pennsylvania. Many of Hazleton’s longtime residents weren’t making the connection between their exploitative coalmining past and their exploitative manufacturing present, Longazel said. Both industries thrive off low wages and immigrant labor. If anything, it was a case of history repeating.
“There are actually two groups here – if you narrow it down to white and Latino – who are actually in very similar circumstances class wise,” Longazel said. “It’s really in our best interest to align, but obviously that doesn’t always happen.”
Longazel said that the real problem is economics. Several of the manufacturing plants that brought in business, and Latino laborers, are closing their doors and putting dozens, if not hundreds, of residents out of work. In 2012, at least 60 jobs were lost when Genova Products closed it plants that once made plastics, vinyl pipes and rain gutters. Seventy-six more people lost their jobs in 2015 when Weir Minerals closed its plant. The city also lost $53,000 in tax revenue, according to Hazleton’s local newspaper The Standard Speaker.
“Hazleton is really struggling once again,” Longazel observes. “There is lots of poverty so crime has skyrocketed, and it’s easy to blame immigrants for that.”
But a different narrative is starting to emerge as native residents make peace with their new neighbors and start to embrace what Latinos contribute to the community. Several Mexican restaurants and bakeries have sprung up throughout Hazleton, luring both Spanish and English-speaking clientele to the dinner table. A photography exhibit featuring artwork by local children drew a mixed crowd to downtown Hazleton just last week. Longtime resident and community leader Bob Curry estimates that attendees were roughly half Anglo and half Latino.
Curry, who has lived in the area for 40 years, teamed up with Hazleton native and Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon to open a community center that targets disadvantaged youth through educational, cultural and athletic opportunities. The Hazleton Integration Project (HIP), now in its third year, offers the only bilingual pre-kindergarten program in the city. HIP also runs an after school program, which is not bilingual, and other community events that foster a sense of unity.
The idea for founding HIP started one evening while the Currys and Maddons dined together at a local restaurant. Maddon, whose career in the Major Leagues has exposed him to people from all over the world, was surprised by some of the anti-immigrant remarks he heard from other locals. Dismayed, Maddon and Curry joined efforts and opened up HIP in a former Catholic school building. The community’s response went from tepid to elated in a short time, Curry said.
“When we first opened, there was certainly a swirl of negativity surrounding the project,” Curry said. “But once people understood what it is that we do, and particularly people who walk through the center, their minds change entirely.”
Now, Curry hears a different story being told on the streets of Hazleton. The main street is filled with Mexican, Dominican and Anglo businesses, and more and more public spaces are filled with brown, black and white faces.
That would have been an anomaly just 10 years ago, Curry said.
“There is a definite evolution of attitudes within the community,” he added. “There is now a sense that this is Hazleton. This is who we are.”