Monday, January 15, 2007

Immigration a hot topic in Allentown

After debating illegal immigration off and on for months, Allentown City Council faces three choices Wednesday night in what could be its climatic meeting on the controversy:

Order the Police Department to put a stronger focus on immigration enforcement by training officers and signing a cooperation agreement with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement office.

Pass the buck and ask city voters to decide by putting the question on the ballot.

Say no to both proposals and do nothing.

If it chooses the last option, Councilman Louis Hershman has promised to mount a petition drive to put the question on the ballot by voter initiative. He would need to collect the signatures of 2,000 registered voters.

''We arrest people for selling drugs and guns under federal laws,'' Hershman said. ''What's wrong with this? Do we pick and choose what federal laws we enforce?''

But opponents of Hershman's proposal — a toned-down version of a previous ordinance that would have punished landlords who rented to and employers who hired illegal immigrants — say putting the issue before the city's voters would simply create ethnic tensions.

''The issue is divisive,'' said Councilman Julio Guridy. ''Then what is going to happen is you are going to have people voting for it because they don't want Hispanics.''

Guridy said an immigration ballot question might energize the Latino vote too, but said he'd prefer to see voters turn out because they were excited about a candidate.

City officials have raised other objections to Hershman's proposal.

Police Chief Roger MacLean has said forcing his department to enter into an immigration enforcement agreement with the federal government would strain the city's already shorthanded Police Department. He said the police force already works with immigration officials when it arrests suspects that may be in the country illegally.

Councilman Michael D'Amore said MacLean's presentation should serve as a conclusive argument against the proposal.

Hershman brought the matter before City Council in July after Hazleton passed its own ordinance making it illegal for landlords to rent to and employers to hire illegal immigrants.

Opponents of Hazleton's law filed a federal lawsuit, calling the law unconstitutional. In the meantime, the courts have ordered that city not to enforce the anti-illegal immigration measure.

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