Donald Trump offered Congressman Lou Barletta the post of secretary of labor in his new administration. Surprisingly, Barletta declined. The reason is now clear: Barletta will champion the cause of slashing funding to sanctuary cities in his next term, a cause that is near and dear to Trump’s heart.
From 2000 to 2011, Barletta was the divisive mayor of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, who championed the “Illegal Immigration Relief Act” (IIRA), an ordinance that would have penalized landlords and business owners for transacting with undocumented immigrants, if it had not been struck down by federal courts as unconstitutional.
Barletta rose to national prominence as a hardline “law-and-order” mayor, a so-called “small town defender,” Tea Party Republican and virulent critic of the Obama administration’s immigration policy. After two failed attempts at securing a congressional seat, he finally achieved success during his third campaign in 2010. Recently elected to a fourth term representing the 11th District, Barletta has climbed the leadership ladder in Congress. He stands to return to the House with even greater influence, given his close ties with the new president.
Barletta committed to support Trump early in the campaign and remained faithful to the end, unlike many mainstream Republicans. He co-chaired Trump’s Pennsylvania campaign committee with Rep. Tom Marino. Barletta’s reputation as a fellow outsider and xenophobe then landed him a key role on Donald Trump’s transition team.
The bill “Mobilizing Against Sanctuary Cities Act, HR 83” is the first that Barletta introduced in the 115th session of Congress. It is the third time he has introduced the measure in his career as a Congressman. The bill aims to block the flow of federal funds to states and cities that refuse to enforce federal immigration laws.
Though the bill never became law in the past two attempts (2011 and 2015), and was eventually defeated by Senate Democrats, it stands a good chance of passing now that both chambers of Congress and the presidency are Republican-controlled.
From “Small Town Defender” to Big-Time Congress Member
In his third term as mayor of Hazleton, Barletta took advantage of growing anger among older white residents at the influx of new immigrants, mainly from Mexico and the Dominican Republic, and mounted a controversial stand against the Obama administration’s immigration policy.
From 2000 to 2006, the Latino population in Hazleton soared from 5 percent to 30 percent, largely because of the availability of factory jobs. Barletta claimed that “as many as half” of Hazleton’s Latinos were undocumented.
The IIRA was passed by the Hazleton City Council in 2006. It imposed a $1,000 fine on landlords who rented to undocumented immigrants and suspended the licenses of businesses that hired them. Another city ordinance made English the official language of Hazleton. Anti-Latino sentiment became codified in law.
When asked by CBS news correspondent Steve Kroft why the city would get involved in enforcing immigration laws, Barletta responded:
Well, obviously if the federal government was doing something about it you wouldn’t be here today. And I wouldn’t be talking about it. I mean, we’re over 2,000 miles from the nearest Mexican border. So, if cities like Hazleton, Pennsylvania, that sits on top of a mountain is having an illegal immigration problem, I can only imagine what it’s like elsewhere in the United States.
The IIRA thrust Barletta into the national limelight and made Hazleton ground zero for the immigration debate in the 2000s. Barletta wore a bulletproof vest to the ceremonial signing of the ordinance, symbolically connecting the immigration issue to the city’s crime problem. The event attracted national press attention.
Before the IIRA could go into effect, though, it was immediately challenged in federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Latino Justice and a number of Latino and Latina residents of Hazleton. The ACLU was eager to challenge the ordinance because in the wake of its passage over 30 other municipalities imitated Hazleton, legislating their own versions of the IIRA.
According to the ACLU, the difficulty with the IIRA was that it made Hazleton’s Latino residents legitimate targets of discrimination, not because of their immigration status, but because of their race and linguistic backgrounds:
The problem was that the law did not, and could not, precisely target immigrants based on legal status. Determining status is not always simple and there are many gray areas. The law’s effect, however, was clear. It aroused suspicion of anyone who looked or sounded foreign…. The law turned a quiet little town, rebounding from economic doldrums, into a battleground between natives and immigrants.
Subsequent to the IIRA’s passage, nearly 5,000 Latinos fled Hazleton in fear.
The court case of Lozano v. Hazleton would take almost a decade to resolve, but eventually the federal courts ruled that the ordinance was in violation of the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution. While Barletta leveraged a seat in Congress, the city and its tax-paying residents would be left to pay attorney fees in excess of a $1 million.
From Opportunist to Racist
One common refrain heard from many long-time white residents of Hazleton is that Barletta is “an opportunist, not a racist.” Indeed, Barletta’s congressional campaign website denies any proof of his anti-immigrant reputation.
Barletta is certainly an opportunist. With the national fame he gained from championing the IIRA, he launched three successive bids for a seat in Congress, eventually defeating long-time Democrat and representative of the 11th District Paul Kanjorski. After Republicans gerrymandered the district boundaries, his seat in Congress became safe for the foreseeable future. He has so far defended it three successive times.
In addition to promoting anti-immigrant policies, Barletta also supports racist policies more broadly. La Prensa San Diego writer Juan Carlos describes the racism that took hold of Hazleton under Barletta’s leadership and earned it the nickname “Nazi city USA”:
This isn’t South Africa under Apartheid; it’s not the Deep South under Jim Crow. It’s not Nazi Germany, or 1984 — It’s Hazleton Pennsylvania, USA, population 31,000. The year is 2006 in the Common Era: 514 years since the white invasion of the Americas.
Let’s make one thing clear; none of this is about ‘illegal immigration.’ It’s not even about immigration. Before it passed, Anna Arias spoke at the Hazleton council meeting against the ordinance, warning that its approval would make Hazleton “the first Nazi city in the country.” When she asked the crowd if they would deport the children of undocumented workers — utterly ‘legal’ US citizens — the crowd shouted ‘Yes!’
There’s only one thing the ‘immigration debate’ is about: It’s about white nationalism.
While Barletta does not describe himself as a supporter of the neo-Nazi and white nationalist coalition that calls itself the “alt-right” (unlike Trump’s lead strategist Stephen Bannon), he is a card-carrying member of its precursor: the Tea Party.
The Tea Party pushed the GOP toward more extreme positions on issues of immigration, gun rights, the national debt and smaller government. Many of their members, such as Lou Barletta, Michele Bachmann and Jim DeMint, rode the wave of support for the Tea Party to secure seats in Congress. The Tea Party website “Small Town Defenders” helped Barletta draft the IIRA and raise funds for a substantial portion of its nearly decade-long legal defense.
In a cruel twist of fate, the same hard-working Latinos whom Barletta intended to oust from Hazleton a decade ago are burdened with paying the remaining $1 million for the IIRA’s legal defense. Barletta the opportunist won his seat in Congress. His constituents were left to pay the bill.
Will Barletta Ruin San Francisco and Boston Like He Ruined Hazleton?
It appears now that Barletta’s decision to decline Trump’s offer to become his next secretary of labor was strategic in nature. It ensures that Barletta can still champion Trump’s cause of defunding sanctuary cities in the 115th Congress.
The million dollar question is: Will Congressman Barletta’s bill “Mobilizing Against Sanctuary Cities Act, HR 83,” if passed into law, do as much economic damage to sanctuary cities, such as San Francisco and Boston (of the 37 that recently reaffirmed their sanctuary status), as the IIRA did to Barletta’s hometown of Hazleton?