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In Hazleton, A Mixed Welcome For City's Immigrants

Roads End bar on Broad Street in Hazleton, Pa., displays a sign in 2007 that reads "ALL Legals Served." Longtime residents of the city are divided over the recent influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants.
Carolyn Kaster
Roads End bar on Broad Street in Hazleton, Pa., displays a sign in 2007 that reads "ALL Legals Served." Longtime residents of the city are divided over the recent influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants.

Many residents say Hazleton, Pa., continues life now as a divided city. While some Spanish-speakers build new lives, longtime residents remain split on how the influx has changed their home.

It's not hard to find a Latino business in Hazleton these days, including law firms, insurance agencies and even a migrant education program. Amilcar Arroyo, the publisher of a local Spanish-language newspaper, says Latinos are now firmly establishing themselves as a part of the city.

"Children that came with their parents ... at the age of 11 [or] 12, right now they are in the college," Arroyo says. "Some of those, they already graduated from college. They are fully English speaking; they don't speak with accents."

This isn't the first time Hazleton has seen a wave of change, says Mayor Joe Yanuzzi, who was born and raised here.

"After the war, mines went down, the silk mill picked up and left. [We] had this union dispute and the town crashed," Yanuzzi says.

Yanuzzi says there were vacant storefronts and kids who graduated from high school moved away. Now, he says, the immigrants have added children to the city's aging population and filled empty storefronts with businesses.

"Now it's like 90 maybe 85 percent filled, and we're happy with that," he says. "I just have a problem with the illegals."

Hazleton resident Chris DiRienzo agrees.

"I'm all for coming to America and experiencing the American dream," he says, "but doing it the proper way, through the proper channels, is the right thing to do and a lot of that is not being done here."

DiRienzo says the city's change has not been for the better.

Longtime residents are responding to their new neighbors in different ways.

Elaine Maddon Curry, who helped found a group called Concerned Parents of the Hazleton Area, says the immigrants remind her of her grandparents, who came to America from Italy and didn't speak English. Her mother went to school speaking only Italian.

"We roughly have about 80 to 100 adults who volunteer from the community to teach English," Curry says. "We have 43 new American citizens as a result of our classes and we also do children's programs."

But the city does face some serious problems, says Police Chief Frank DeAndrea.

"One is drugs ... one is gangs, and they sort of go hand-in-hand because gangs sell drugs to make money," DeAndrea says. "But there are as many white and black members of this entire Hazleton area involved in gangs as there are Latinos."

DeAndrea, who was born and raised here, says the language gap between new and old residents makes the job of policing even harder.

"I need to do something as the chief of police to get them to be able to communicate with half of the community that we serve," he says. "It's only fair to those victims and it's only fair for us to be able to do a thorough investigation. I need to bridge those gaps quickly."

Demographer Kevin O'Neil says immigrants are coming to Hazleton not just for jobs, but also cheap housing, friendly communities and good schools.

"Just dealing with illegality won't change demographics," O'Neil says. "It also matters whether communities have the resources to deal with things like rising school enrollments and to be able to provide English-language training and to be able to sort of integrate people and bring them into their community."

O'Neil says on a national level, offering undocumented people a path to citizenship could help by taking illegality out of the equation and by cooling down the political fires. But, he says, that will not solve all the challenges facing places like Hazleton.

Copyright 2020 WHYY. To see more, visit WHYY.

Elizabeth Fiedler