Lou Barletta: Burdensome, Illegal, Alien

This week in North Philly Notes, we re-post Undocumented Fears author Jamie Longazel’s recent essay from the Huffington Post about Lou Barletta. 

Donald Trump is reportedly considering Congressman Lou Barletta to serve as his Secretary of Labor.

A Trump supporter from the beginning, Barletta made a national name for himself as mayor of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, when he spearheaded the Illegal Immigration Relief Act (IIRA) in 2006. Riding the wave of popularity generated from his hard-line anti-immigrant stance, he went on to unseat longtime Democratic incumbent Paul Kanjorski in the U.S. House of Representatives.

This potential appointment does not surprise me given Barletta’s loyalty to Trump and the political similarities the two share. However, as someone who grew up in Hazleton and spent the last decade studying the politics surrounding the IIRA, I am deeply concerned.

Undocumented Fears_smAs I chronicle in my book, Undocumented Fears, Barletta pushed the IIRA without any evidence to support his anti-immigrant claims. He suggested undocumented immigrants were wreaking havoc on his city – committing crimes, draining resources, and the like. I show how in reality it was economic policies favoring the wealthy that were responsible for Hazleton’s decline.

Like Trump, Barletta has elevated demagoguery over truth. “I don’t need numbers,” he boasted when confronted with the reality that undocumented immigrants did not increase crime in Hazleton. At the same time he has masked how his own political decisions have done more harm than good for his constituents, including some of his most ardent supporters.

Although there was no evidence to support his claim that “illegal aliens in our city create an economic burden that threatens our quality of life,” there is plenty of evidence of Barletta burdening city resources. Back in 2001, as mayor, he gave his blessing to local developers seeking to implement a state-level corporate welfare initiative that provided exploitative multinational companies with massive tax breaks. Some enjoyed a moratorium on all taxes for a dozen years. Hazleton today provides a clear example of how a city cannot provide its residents with adequate services when its largest employers do not pay their fair share.

More directly, Barletta took advantage of the system for his own benefit by dragging his exclusionary law through a years-long appeal process. While increasing his political capital by refusing to “back down,” he ignored clear pronouncements that this would cost the city immensely. Indeed, it has. Hazleton – which operates on an annual budget of less than $10 million – now owes $1.4 million in legal fees. As the Editorial Board of the local newspaper, the Citizen’s Voice so appropriately put it, “[T]he residents of Hazleton will have to consider [this] an involuntary contribution to [Barletta’s] campaign war chest.”

Silencing critics who sought to add complexity to the debate, Barletta regularly uttered the simplistic, faux-populist line “illegal is illegal.” The hypocrisy of this was in full view as he reacted to the court’s determination that the IIRA illegally overstepped federal authority and violated the Equal Protection Clause, unleashing Trump-like criticisms of judges, immigrant rights groups, and musings about a rigged system.

Because he hails from a hardscrabble former coalmining town, Barletta may look the part as potential Secretary of Labor. Hazleton, after all, has one of the richest histories of labor organizing you will find.

But we shouldn’t let that fool us. Lou Barletta’s pro-corporate / anti-immigrant stance is alien to the working class legacy of Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Coal Region. He has more in common with the barons of the mining era than he does with the miners, enabling exploitation more than protecting us from it. What should worry us most is how he has followed in the footsteps of the coal barons, using ethnic stereotyping to pit working people against one another.

It is true Barletta and Trump are both widely popular in Hazleton at the moment. But after sifting through Lou Barletta’s record, I can say with confidence that he does not represent the interests of the working class people living in Hazleton today, despite posturing as though he does. Unfortunately, laborers across the country may soon find out that he does not represent theirs, either.

Temple University Press is having a Back-to-School SALE!

TOP


SaleBOTTOM

Something to be Proud Of

In this blog entry, Jamie Longazel, author of Undocumented Fearswrites about the pride, shame and legacy of his hometown of Hazleton, PA.

People talk a lot about being proud of where they’re from. Understandably so: It’s nice to feel connected, to be able to associate with a place and call it ‘home.’

I’m proud of where I’m from. I was born and raised in Hazleton – a hardscrabble, former coalmining town in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Like anywhere else, we have our own dialect (we say “youse” instead of “you all”), cuisine (you ought to try the cold pizza!), and ways of doing things that folks from other places probably wouldn’t understand.

Undocumented Fears_smMy book Undocumented Fears is about my hometown. And I can say with confidence now that pride is what drove me to write it. Part of me knew this all along. At first, though, it felt like my pride was either backwards or upside-down. What I now call pride actually felt like the opposite in the beginning. Shame, perhaps.

I was not proud of what my hometown did, you see. Certainly not in the way we traditionally think about pride and place.

Back in 2006, Hazleton was getting national attention when it passed the Illegal Immigration Relief Act. This was a local ordinance meant to punish landlords and businesses who rented to or hired undocumented immigrants. It also made English the official language of the city.

The ordinance came at a time when Hazleton was going through some significant changes. The decent-paying, long-term manufacturing jobs that kept the city afloat for several decades were on their way out. Warehouses, distribution centers, and a meatpacking plant – with lower paying, temporary, and sometimes dangerous jobs – were on their way in.

With these economic changes came demographic changes. Many Latina/o immigrants relocated to Hazleton over a very short period. Ninety-five percent White at the time of the 2000 census, the city was approximately 36% Latina/o by 2006.

Change can be confusing. Sociologists have long known that in moments like this, communities tend to come together and try to make sense of it all. We grasp for explanations. We seek to redefine who we are.

I get it. The poverty appears starker each time I visit, and it breaks my heart to see my city and its people go through that. This is why I have been so committed to figuring out what is actually going on.

When I think of home – especially since learning more about Hazleton’s history – I think of anthracite coal. In its ‘heyday,’ European immigrants toiled in mines in and around Hazleton facing notoriously low pay, disturbingly high rates of disease and death, and mine bosses who mastered the art of pitting ethnic groups against one another. To me this legacy is central to who we are.

In 2006, however, politicians started warning about undocumented immigrants who were committing crime and draining all the resources. Following their lead, people started blaming immigrants for their troubles.

Chalk it up to ignorance if you’d like, but also keep people’s yearning for collective identity in mind. I describe in the book how debates over the ordinance introduced degrading myths about who ‘they’ supposedly were (e.g., illegal, lazy, transient, noisy) – stereotypes that Latina/os troublingly have to endure in their day-to-day lives. At the same time, these myths provided the established, predominately white community with a contrast against which they could articulate a fresh conception of ‘us’ (e.g., law-abiding, hardworking, rooted, quiet).

What prevailed was an image of Hazleton as ‘Small Town, USA’ – which, like the idea that Hazleton is being ‘invaded’ by undocumented immigrants, just plainly is not true.

This is not to say that Hazleton and its people are undesirable or unworthy of this designation. The point is that ‘desirability’ as it is presented here relies on demonization and is fed to us from above. We’re pointing our fingers in the wrong direction. We’re being told who we are rather than deciding that for ourselves.

The form of industry changed, but in Hazleton, and across the country, for that matter, there is a wide gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ It is as if the coal barons of yesteryear are still around today. They do not want us to know that, of course, for if we did we might carry on the legacy of our mining ancestors and rally against low pay, brutal working conditions, and unfair treatment.

The ‘pride’ we often see in nostalgic yearnings for the ‘good ol’ days’ in ‘Small Town America’ in this sense isn’t pride at all. It’s detachment. It’s a decoy….It’s a dream.

I learned something about my city while writing this book, and I learned something about pride. Real pride requires authenticity. It requires confrontation. Pride is what keeps you from backing down when someone challenges your identity.

I show off my pride today by choosing the gritty reality of a post-industrial city over idealized and racist myths offered by opportunistic politicians.

Don’t get me wrong: I’d prefer prosperity. But we can’t just close our eyes and imagine a time when it supposedly existed. We ought to see ourselves as poor and working people who are part of an ongoing struggle in which immigrants are allies, not enemies.

If we want our poverty to end, we need to know who is actually perpetuating it. Then we need to rally together across our differences and demand changes in the way we are treated. That would be something to be proud of.

Paying Tribute to The New York Young Lords

This week in North Philly Notes, Darrel Wanzer-Serrano, author of The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation, provides an introduction to this almost forgotten liberation organization.

On July 26, 1969, the New York Young Lords announced themselves to a public audience at a Tompkins Square Park rally. The next day, they were blocking the streets of El Barrio with trash, protesting both their unsanitary living conditions brought on by willful neglect of their community and the sanitizing force of “the system” — it’s capacity to nullify resistive movements and homogenize difference.

The first New York-rooted, radical Puerto Rican group of the post-McCarthy era, the Young Lords were central to a set of transformations in their community and beyond. This group of young people spoke truth to power and mobilized thousands of supporters in the communities to which they anchored themselves and their activism.

But why, after all of these years, has still so little been written on the New York Young Lords (and even less on the original Chicago chapter or the branches in Philadelphia, Bridgeport, etc.)? Appearing as the main subject of only a handful of articles and book chapters — and appearing, more frequently, as an aside or summation — the memory of Young Lords has circulated like a ghost for leftist Puerto Rican academics. Is it because the group, ultimately, wasn’t instrumentally “successful” in many of their specific interventions? Is it because so much of the scholarship coming out of Puerto Rican studies has focused on older histories, literary and cultural studies, and so on? Who knows; but more work needs to be done.

New York Young Lords_smMy recently released book, The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation, is one such effort at filling out the history of the Young Lords in New York. Focused largely on the group’s early activism, I craft a critical-interpretive history of the Young Lords to help introduce them to a broader audience. Beyond the historical point, the book is also an effort to enrich our understandings of decolonial praxis and its potentials. Decolonial theory — especially as engaged by scholars from Latin American and Latin@ contexts — has evolved well over the last couple of decades. I believe it can be pushed further via engagement of particulars, of the grounded ways in which people and groups seek to delink from modernity/coloniality in their lived environments.

In the fourth chapter of book, I examine the Young Lords’ “garbage offensive” as an activist moment that speaks to/through multiple gestures of decolonial praxis. As their first direct-action campaign, the Young Lords helped craft the space of El Barrio as a colonized place, one in which broader based efforts at politicizing the residents would be necessary. Crucially, rather than merely asserting themselves in El Barrio, the Young Lords listened to the people in order to discern their needs, which is how they came to the issue of garbage in the first place. In listening to the cries of the dispossessed, the Young Lords engaged in a key practice of decolonial love and went on, further, to model such love in the immediate community and beyond.

Now, there is some question as to how unique activism around garbage was to the Young Lords. As I talk about in the book, there is evidence that a branch of the Real Great Society has engaged in similar garbage protests earlier than the Young Lords. What’s important here, however, is not the question of who did it first, but the different issue how they came about the idea, gave it priority and presence, and cultivated political transformations in the community that could transgress constructions of Puerto Ricans as a political, docile, and so on.

Although my book engages in detailed analyses surrounding the garbage offensive, the church offensive, their transformations surrounding gender, their articulation of revolutionary nationalism, and their engagements of history, more work remains to be done. Aside from a brief mention, I devote little attention to their takeover of Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx. I barely write about the branches that sprouted up outside of New York City. My hope is that others will continue to add to the breadth of the Young Lords’ history in ways that scholars have done with the Black Panthers, the Chican@ movement, and beyond. As one recent report puts it, “The time is ripe for a look back at one of the most potent and political organizations of the 20th century.” Running now through October, ¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York is a multi-site exhibition of Young Lords art and activism at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, El Museo del Barrio, and Loisiada Inc. Through such exhibitions and more scholarship, my hope is that memory of the Young Lords can live on and continue to inform public debates and activism now and into the future.

%d bloggers like this: