ATLANTA — In early 2006, Hazleton, Pa., mayor Lou Barletta stepped onto center stage of America's debate over immigration law reform and lit the fuse of a revolution.
His idea was simple: If the federal government couldn't stop an influx of illegal aliens into the US that now tops 12 million people, he could at least take steps to protect the borders of his own town. The ordinance punishes landlords and business owners who do business with undocumented residents.
Now in place or being considered in as many as 100 municipalities in at least 27 states, the Hazleton ordinance is, for the first time, under judicial scrutiny in a federal court in Scranton, Pa. It's the beginning of a journey that legal experts say will likely go all the way to the US Supreme Court. At issue is whether municipalities have the authority to mete out punishment to those enabling illegal immigrants or whether such laws usurp the federal government's power.
The winning side will also be able to claim a symbolic political victory in the nation's debate over immigration that is likely to impact whether the laws continue to proliferate and decisions by existing immigrants to stay or leave their communities.
"The Hazleton ordinance is like Shay's Rebellion, an historic event that started at the local level and had profound national consequences," says John Armor, a constitutional law expert in Highlands, N.C. "In this case, too, the rebellion has spread and people in other states have sympathized and put pressure from the bottom up to change the system."
Driven by a seeming lack of federal action on curbing illegal immigration, states and localities stepped into the debate in 2005. In 2006, more than 500 immigration-related bills were introduced into state legislatures, 84 of which passed, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. Many were inspired by Mayor Barletta's measure.
They affect everything from whether undocumented workers can become veterinarians to stiffer penalties for "coyotes" who traffic immigrants into the US.
"The variety of bills really reflects the complexity of the issue, and the debate has an influence on many, many levels," says Dirk Hegan, an analyst at the NCSL's Immigrant Policy Project in Washington.
In addition, at least 30 municipalities, including Escondido, Calif., and Farmers Branch, Texas, have passed the Hazleton ordinance and another 70 are considering it, according to a list compiled by the Associated Press. Hazleton's ordinance fines landlords who rent to illegals $1,000 a day and revokes the licenses of business for five years if they hire illegal workers.
Such local laws "do send a signal, and the signal is being received across the nation, and it's working," says Al Rodriguez, director of Hispanic-American group, You Don't Speak for Me in Scottsdale, Ariz., which promotes secure borders.
Yet some states have laws allowing children of illegal immigrants to attend universities at in-state resident's rates, and businesses are courting the services of illegals. "There are a lot of mixed signals, but so far the economic ones are a lot stronger than the signals coming out of places like Hazleton," says Dale Maharidge, author of "The Coming White Minority."
Yet there's evidence that immigrants are leaving locales with laws that affect their ability to live and work. When Valley Park, Mo., enacted a Hazleton-style law last year, a dozen families left town "under the cloak of dark," says Courtney Prentis of the Catholic Charities of St. Louis. "There are social ripples felt beyond Valley Park, and that such a small community can have such an impact is pretty significant," says Ms. Prentis. A state judge on Monday ruled one version of the Valley Park ordinance illegal, though the city has since passed a slightly reworded version.
A big test of whether such measures can spur a mass exodus will be when Georgia's immigration law, the strictest in the nation, takes effect July 1.
"The response of the people is they change routes," says Coco Magallenes, a spokeswoman for the Mexicans Without Borders, a pro-immigrant group in Washington. "The immigrant community right now is experiencing a state of fear" that affects whether they stay or go.
And Americans need to look at the impact on state and local economies when immigrants leave communities, critics say.
"Our rates of return on pension plans are based on people being able to buy labor at a cheaper price, so our avarice is seeding the illegal immigration problem," says Linda Martinez, an attorney with Bryan Cave in St. Louis who argued against the Valley Park ordinance. "That's one of the reasons the business community is saying [to Hazleton supporters], 'Are you sure this is what you want to do?'"
In Hazleton, the ACLU, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund, and the US Chamber of Commerce are arguing that municipalities have no right to preempt federal authority on immigration issues, and that local ordinances clash with federal antidiscrimination and fair-housing laws.
Yet other legal experts say municipalities do not need federal authority to take on lawbreakers in their communities. "When crossing an international boundary, heck yes, it's a federal issue," says Mr. Armor in Highlands. "But when you're talking about whether people are committing fraud in order to hold jobs, a municipal corporation, as long as it has general powers, can establish ordinances to promote the health and welfare of its citizens. That's what they exist to do, and that doesn't contradict [federal law]."