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As Lou Barletta’s immigration law failed his political brand was born

U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta's political reputation was built on a controversial 2006 law aimed at an influx of Latino immigrants to his hometown of Hazleton. Barletta, now challenging U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., defends the law, even though it was never enforced and cost the borough of 25,000 residents nearly $1.7 million in legal expenses.

U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta walks through Hazleton, Pa. Barletta is the Republican nominee challenging U.S. Sen. Bob Casey's bid for a third term, Friday July 6., 2018.
U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta walks through Hazleton, Pa. Barletta is the Republican nominee challenging U.S. Sen. Bob Casey's bid for a third term, Friday July 6., 2018.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

HAZLETON, Pa. – U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta slowed his GMC Denali on East Chestnut Street to tell the story of how Derek Kichline died and a law to restrict illegal immigration was born.

It is a story Barletta has been telling for a dozen years, the cornerstone to a political career that has taken him from mayor of Hazleton to the U.S. House and now to be the Republican nominee challenging U.S. Sen. Bob Casey's bid for a third term.

Kichline was working on his car in front of his house one night in 2006, Barletta said earlier this month, when two men approached. One raised a gun and fired a shot at close range into Kichline's head, killing him.

The men were in the country illegally from the Dominican Republic, and police told local media they were involved in drug dealing.

The murder shocked this town of 25,000, 82 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Barletta, who was mayor at the time, pushed for a local ordinance making it illegal for employers to hire and landlords to rent to anyone in this country illegally.

It was approved by a 4-1 vote 64 days after Kichline was killed, amid a wave of immigration — legal and illegal — that was changing the face of Hazleton, in the anthracite coal region.

Barletta's story — us-vs.-them, small-town go-it-alone anger and angst — established and defined his political brand and would eventually catch the eye of a New York developer running for president with a platform heavy with controversial claims about illegal immigration.

It was President Trump who, in a June 2017 phone call, first urged Barletta to challenge Casey.

Vice President Pence is coming to Philadelphia this month to raise money for Barletta, who has lagged far behind Casey in campaign resources. And Barletta said Trump has committed to campaigning in the state for him.

Casey, appearing eager to have a fight with Trump and Barletta, has highlighted their close connection and agreement on the issue of illegal immigration.

So Kichline's story will be told some more.

But two elements are sometimes left out of the telling.

The men accused in Kichline's killing were released after the case against them fell apart.

And the law Barletta pushed in Kichline's name was never enforced — not for a single day — because a federal judge stepped in to immediately block it.

Barletta's law was good for his political future but a colossal failure for his financially strapped hometown, prompting a decade-long federal court battle with a legal bill that reached nearly $1.7 million.

‘It wasn’t like I had choices’

Walk around Hazleton and Barletta's popularity becomes clear. People honk and wave while he shows off a playground he renovated while serving as mayor from 2000 to 2010. Head into Frankie's Pizzeria and the lunchtime crowd makes frequent stops at his table. It's not the glad-handing of a campaign. People just want to say hi.

That same tour offers examples of the dichotomy that Hazleton has become. Next door, the Manuel Empanadas restaurant is just as packed for lunch. Outside, people are speaking Spanish. Two communities, living side by side, appear to be one.

Over lunch — a chicken cheesesteak along with a slice of pizza he ate with a knife and a fork — Barletta doesn't take long to mull the costs Hazleton had to bear for his law.

"It wasn't like I had choices," he said. "Everything was changing here. Gangs moved in. Violent crimes had gone up. Services were harder or near impossible to provide."

Barletta's story usually includes a day trip to Washington, where he sought help on illegal immigration from the Department of Justice. He got a meeting, a coffee mug, and a lapel pin but no help.

Then, Kichline was killed and Barletta's law drew national attention that brought accolades and accusations.

"You have to deal with the fact that people are going to call you a racist, a bigot, anti-immigrant," Barletta said. "They're going to twist your words."

Amilcar Arroyo calls Barletta a friend, although they disagree on immigration issues. Arroyo, originally from Peru, publishes the Spanish-language El Mensajero, a monthly newspaper.

Sitting in his office on Hazleton's main drag, Broad Street, Arroyo said Barletta is not a racist.

"To me, Lou is a smart politician. He knows what to say, where to say it and when to say it," said Arroyo, describing Barletta as appealing to old-guard residents unsettled as the city's Latino population went from 5 percent in 2000 to 37 percent in 2010 to 52 percent in 2016. "They see in Lou a guy who will protect them from a wave of immigrants."

That wave will continue to rise in the 2020 U.S. Census, Arroyo predicts.

"We are the majority," he said.

‘He stuck to his guns’

The Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, in a 2007 legal challenge, cast Barletta as a political opportunist who lacked detailed statistics to back up his claims about immigrants and crime.

Barletta, while testifying in that case, said he did not know how many undocumented immigrants were living in Hazleton and could not quantify their impact on the city's finances. He also admitted that immigration had helped turn around Hazleton's economy.

Barletta is still reluctant to guess about what percentage of Hazleton's population is in the country illegally. While he has speculated that the number could be 10,000, he also considers the question ridiculous.

"How the hell do you count people who are hiding from authority?" Barletta asked. "Because Lou Barletta asked them to be counted you think people are going to come to City Hall?"

Barletta recalled reading a USA Today story in 2006 about his efforts when he saw Kris Kobach, then a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor,  quoted saying Hazleton had the legal right to pass the law.

"That was the first person I heard say I could do what I wanted to do," said Barletta, who had his secretary quickly get Kobach on the phone. "He said, what took you so long?"

Kobach was enlisted to fine-tune the law and then defend it in court.

Now a candidate for governor in Kansas, Kobach most recently led the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which Trump created after claiming — without offering evidence — he lost the 2016 popular vote due to illegal voting by non-citizens. The commission disbanded after several states balked at sharing private information about voters.

"I was really impressed with how he stuck to his guns," Kobach said of Barletta. "You know a politician by which battles he chooses to invest his time and effort it."

Hazleton's ordinance was rejected in 2010 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The U.S. Supreme Court asked the Third Circuit to take another look in 2011, where it failed again.

Kobach points to two local ordinances passed in Nebraska and Missouri that were similar to Hazleton's law. The U.S. Eighth Circuit upheld those measures, Kobach said.

"If Hazleton would have been in the Eighth Circuit, Lou Barletta's law would still be enforced today," Kobach said.

A district court judge in October 2015 ordered Hazleton to pay the legal fees and expenses for the plaintiff's attorneys — a tally of $1,426,684. City records show Hazleton spent $258,634 from a legal defense fund.

That brings the total legal cost of the law to $1,685,213.

Asked if it was worth it, Barletta again insists he had no other options.

"People were demanding I do something," he said, recounting an elderly woman who waited in his parking space at City Hall and jammed her finger angrily into his chest while complaining about illegal immigration. "It's not like I had a choice."

And then the bubble burst

Mix into a clash of cultures an economic calamity and small-town Pennsylvania might just surprise you with a peaceful outcome.

Bob Curry said some in Hazleton have been tempted to romanticize the city's past, to recall glory days long passed before the new immigrants arrived. People were already moving out of town then, shrinking the tax base.

"It was a city losing its population, losing its youth, losing its jobs," said Curry, who founded the Hazleton Integration Project with his wife, Elaine Maddon Curry, with support from her cousin, Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon, a native of the city.

Cubs gear decorates the walls of a former Catholic elementary school that serves as headquarters for a population that came here as Yankees fans.

About 100 children bustled across the hardwood gym floor toward the exits, waving still-sticky spin-art works on paper as a basketball game starts to take shape as day camp wraps up a week. The kids speak in a mix of Spanish and English, mimicking waves of prior immigrants with children who often pick up the local language before their parents.

Curry said Hazleton's immigrants were drawn to the city's safe streets and schools and the chance to buy a house.

That wave came "concurrent to the cataclysm," he notes, the 2008 burst of the nation's housing bubble that set off a massive recession.

"It created distinct tension that almost boiled over in 2007, 2008," Curry said. "It's not the temperature of the city anymore."

The issue calmed but then Curry braced for the 2016 presidential election, worried old wounds would reopen.

"We were stunned," he said. "We really thought it would be a watershed moment that re-established those lines and everyone would still be angry."

That didn't happen. Instead, strangers become neighbors and then friends.

Here, Curry and Barletta agree.

"It's natural for any city that has such a huge influx at one time, there's going to be a culture clash for a while," Barletta said. "But people got to know each other."

The brand established

With Barletta's brand on the rise, he was recruited in 2008 by the National Republican Congressional Committee to challenge U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski, a 12-term Democrat.

Barletta, who had lost to Kanjorski in a 2002 bid, campaigned on immigration issues but again came up short.

He was back in 2010, defeating Kanjorski in a midterm election that swept Democrats out of office across the country.

Barletta carried on with a hard-line approach to immigration in Congress and became an early supporter for Trump's presidential ambitions and then co-chairman of his campaign in the state.

Entering the race, Barletta returned to familiar ground with a campaign mailer that claimed "America is at war" with "violent criminal aliens" entering the country illegally.

It's this or nothing. Barletta chose to not seek a fifth term in his House seat while challenging Casey.

"I'm willing to take a risk or go home," Barletta said. "I could have stayed in my House seat as long as I wanted to. Everyone said, you're crazy."

The thinking: Casey, a Scranton Democrat named for his father, a former governor of Pennsylvania, is one of the best established political names in the state.

Barletta bobs and weaves through questions about whether his immigration law helped him politically. But here a flash of pride crosses his face. Casey has a famous name because of his dad, Barletta said.

And Barletta's name?

"It's famous because of what I did, because of what I fought for," he said.