A federal judge has dealt what we can only hope is a decisive blow against a dangerous trend of freelance immigration policies by local governments. Judge James M. Munley of the central Pennsylvania district, struck down ordinances in the town of Hazleton that sought to harshly punish undocumented immigrants for trying to live and work there, and employers and landlords for providing them with homes and jobs.
The ruling was a well-earned embarrassment for Mayor Louis J. Barletta and his proclaimed goal of making Hazleton “one of the toughest places in the United States” for illegal immigrants. In doing so, Judge Munley laid down basic truths that every American should remember.
First, immigration is a federal responsibility. State and local governments have no right to usurp or upend a vast, “carefully drawn federal statutory scheme” that governs who enters the country and the conditions under which immigrants stay, study, work and naturalize. Congress may be botching the job, but it has not delegated it.
Second, the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection applies to all persons, not just citizens. The presumption that the 14th Amendment can be set aside while immigrants are hunted down and punished is widespread but false. The judge wrote: “We cannot say clearly enough that persons who enter this country without legal authorization are not stripped immediately of all their rights because of this single illegal act.”
It is not yet clear when or whether Hazleton’s vigilantism will finally be stifled. Mr. Barletta says he will appeal. He and others across the country can be expected to keep concocting ever-more-inventive strategies to deliver pain to immigrants.
But that is a legal and moral dead end. As long as people like Mr. Barletta persist in misusing the law to serve their prejudices, they will make the immigration system an ever more incoherent muddle. They will thwart reasonable efforts to grapple with the opportunities and problems borne in with the influx of newcomers. And they will continue to dehumanize not only their victims, but themselves.
Mayor Barletta says he is angry at the federal failure to control immigration. Good for him; he should join the club. But he should realize that it was his side — his restrictionist soul mates in the United States Senate — that last month took the most ambitious attempt in a generation to restore lawfulness and order to immigration, loaded it with unworkable cruelties, then pushed it into a ditch. They celebrated their victory, but their shortsighted insistence on border enforcement above all else will leave places like Hazleton to grapple with a failed immigration policy for years to come.