Lou Barletta was elected Tuesday to a third term as mayor of Hazleton, a city of about 31,000 in northeastern Pennsylvania. Such an election normally would attract little national attention. But members of the U.S. Senate would be well advised to pay close attention to it.
A Republican, Mr. Barletta won his own primary, 1,343 votes to 80, in what the local newspaper, the Standard-Speaker, said "appears to be the biggest landslide in city history."
Mr. Barletta also won the Democratic primary, as a write-in candidate. He received 1,211 votes to 699 for the Democrat on the ballot, his predecessor as mayor.
What accounts for Mayor Barletta's amazing popularity in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2-1?
Last August Hazleton passed ordinances which impose a $1,000 a day fine on any landlord in the city who rents to an illegal immigrant, and revokes for five years the business license of any employer who hires one. Prospective renters would be required to appear at city hall with proof of citizenship, or of a legal right to be in America.
Another ordinance declares English to be Hazleton's official language. City employees are forbidden to translate documents into other languages without official authorization.
Mayor Barletta says the ordinances are necessary because illegal immigrants have been driving up the crime rate and swamping the schools and the local hospital. I think they are too severe. But the people of Hazleton evidently disagree.
Meanwhile, the Senate is taking up a "comprehensive" immigration reform bill which would provide a fairly gentle path to citizenship for most of the estimated 12 million illegals already here.
Many Republicans in the Senate are expected to sign onto the bill because it doesn't appear to be as bad as the McCain-Kennedy bill proposed last year, and it's the best that can be expected to emerge from a Democrat-controlled Congress.
This has caused a firestorm of criticism on the right. Radio talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Hugh Hewitt have denounced the bill, as have the editors of National Review. GOP lawmakers have been inundated with irate emails and telephone calls.
I'm strongly opposed to illegal immigration. A nation's first responsibility is to control its borders, and we don't. Our failure to secure our borders is a threat to national security. Three of the six would-be terrorists who planned to massacre soldiers at Fort Dix came into this country illegally. Two of them entered from Mexico.
But I think most of the illegal immigrants are decent, hard-working people who are an asset to this country, or would be if our policies weren't so screwed up. I want the government to know who is in the country. I want to keep out the crooks and the terrorists. But I think it would be insane, and immoral, to try to throw all of these people out.
Most Americans agree with me. A Gallup poll in April indicates 78 percent of respondents think illegals presently in the country ought to be given a chance at citizenship.
I've only read summaries of the bill's provisions, but the compromise doesn't look bad. Illegals would have to qualify for citizenship; they wouldn't be granted amnesty automatically, as they were in 1986. There would be beefed up border security and stricter enforcement of employer hiring.
"My first impression ... is that it contains most of the principles conservatives have sought," said conservative Web logger Bruce Kesler.
But Bruce is worried as am I by weasel words and escape clauses: "I'm struck that most of these principles are dependent on future appropriations or mere administration certifications," he said.
In 1986 Congress passed an immigration reform bill in which amnesty was granted to illegals already here in exchange for stricter border enforcement. The amnesty provision was implemented. The enforcement provisions were not.
I blame the duplicitous mush in the Senate bill chiefly upon the anti-immigrant hardliners. We could have had a comprehensive bill last year with serious enforcement provisions, but the retromingent wing of the Republican Party would countenance nothing that smacked of amnesty. So now Democrats call the shots.
I also blame President Bush. His apparent refusal to get serious about border enforcement has enraged many conservatives, driving them toward more extreme positions. An indication of the Bush administration's lack of seriousness is that just two miles of the border fence Congress authorized last year has been built.