Once upon a time, when the Republican presidential hopefuls were all attempting to "out-Tancredo Tancredo," immigration looked to be shaping up as a major issue in the 2008 election. Of course, that was before the selection of immigration moderate John McCain as the GOP nominee. Before Palin-mania. Before the financial crisis. Now, the most obvious relic from the years when immigration mattered -- 2005 and 2006 -- are Latinos trending Democratic in record numbers, motivated by the once-heated anti-immigrant sentiment of the national Republican Party.
But in one unique northeastern Pennsylvania congressional district, the 11th, immigration remains a major priority. The Republican Mayor of the town of Hazleton, Lou Barletta, is running for Congress after making headlines as a severe, even draconian opponent of illegal immigration. "Barletta has just one issue: illegal is illegal," said Amilcar Arroyo, the publisher and editor of El Mensajero, the district's foremost Spanish language newspaper. Barletta's opponent, incumbent Paul Kanjorski, can all but keep up.
Kanjorski has represented Pennsylvania's 11th for a quarter century, but this year -- a year for the Dems, in most regions -- his seat may fall from under him. Back in 2002, a GOP-dominant year, Kanjorski nevertheless overpowered Barletta by 13 points. Now the same race has no clear favorite, according to CQ Politics. The most recent polls, released two days apart -- one sponsored by Barletta, the other by the DCCC -- put each candidate, in turn, ahead by 8 points.
Since losing six years ago, Barletta has built a name for himself. In July 2006, he advanced three anti-immigrant ordinances, together called the Illegal Immigration Relief Act, modeled after a ballot initiative that failed in San Bernardino, California earlier that year. The IIRA would have fined landlords for renting to "illegal aliens" (the ordinance's term); revoked licenses from business owners employing or selling to "illegal aliens"; and instated a condition of English-only for all city business. After Hazleton's city council approved the IIRA in a 4-1 vote, over a hundred cities across the U.S. played copy-cat, drafting anti-immigrant ordinances that were often identical to Hazleton's. Barletta's city became a microcosm of the nation's frustrations toward the federal government's inaction on immigration reform. Barletta became a media darling and spoke as a witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the issue. Latinos, dubbed "midnight movers" by locals, fled racial profiling in Hazleton. This July, the Pennsylvania Mayors Association voted Barletta Mayor of the Year.
Despite political strides for Barletta -- he won reelection in 2007 with 90 percent of the vote -- U.S. District Court Judge James Munley struck down his ordinances on grounds that immigration is a federal, not local, issue. Barletta appealed, causing local controversy over how to fund the lawsuit; final oral arguments will be heard Friday before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. The local election will have "none, zero" effect on the trial (and vice versa), Vic Walczak, Legal Director of Pennsylvania's American Civil Liberties Union (leading litigation against Hazleton) told The Prospect. But, he said, "Barletta has used the case and the issue to launch his congressional aspirations."
Indeed, without the IIRA Barletta would not be so recognizable. On most issues, he actually agrees with Kanjorski, whose record looks surprisingly Republican. Both candidates support offshore drilling, oppose abortion, and would not privatize social security (though Barletta has flip-flopped on this last point). They even agree on immigration, of all things. Both oppose any pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, support making English the national language, want to build a high-tech border wall, and would like to see greater local enforcement of existing federal immigration laws.
Despite their alignment, immigration has become the race's wedge issue. The difference between the candidates comes down to rhetoric. "Rhetoric is a precise word," said Walczak in his opening argument against the IIRA in 2007; he was emphasizing the fact that Barletta and the city admittedly had no evidence to support their claims that undocumented immigrants were responsible for problems such as an over-extended education system, ER waiting lines, and increased violent crime. Likewise, Barletta claims in this race that he "saw the [immigration] problem and did something about it. I didn't [just] talk about it." But with his ordinances found unconstitutional and currently luffing on appeal, talking is all Barletta has done, both to rationalize the ordinances and his congressional candidacy.
Recognizing Barletta's celebrity status, Kanjorski started running campaign ads early, in July. Barletta followed in mid-August. While Kanjorski has spent $2.3 million on this election, Barletta hasn't breached the $1 million mark.
Beyond funding, Kanjorski has a rich history that would give him clout, at least in a more typical race. He is the second highest ranking Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee and chairman of Capital Markets, Insurance, and Government-Sponsored Enterprises subcommittee. Kanjorski's ads pin Barletta to Bush on taxes and emphasize the two men's friendship; they don't even come close to suggesting his immigration stance may be severe, inappropriate, or unconstitutional, likely because most of the district has already drunk Barletta's Kool-Aid.
By the same token, Barletta discredits Kanjorski for not only being affiliated with a committee involved in the financial crisis, but also for supporting the bailout bill. Locals reiterate that the economy is a top issue in the district, and financial worries contribute to the overheated anti-immigration rhetoric. "Probably the biggest thing people worry about is economics. That's why [Barletta's] immigration message really appeals to them. Our population is very gray; that's the only reason why the immigration message really has the appeal it does," Demetria Deakos, who ran against Barletta for mayor in 2007, told The Prospect.
Such anti-immigrant sentiment motivates Latinos to the polls nationwide, and grows their voting bloc. But in Pennsylvania's 11th District, "Hispanic people -- usually they don't vote. The Hispanic population is a new population," Arroyo explained. "They have five or six years here. They are residents. They are citizens, too. But from 9,000, only 100 or 200 will vote." At the same time, Arroyo pointed out that, "[Hispanics] know Obama is their candidate. That's all they know. When I ask if they know we have another race locally, they don't know."
The up-ticket race, then, may have little effect on the contested House seat. In the last two presidential elections, the district -- which includes Scranton, the home town of V.P. nominee Joe Biden -- has gone Democratic. Most registered voters in the district are Democrats and its congressional seat has gone left all but once since 1955. That's why it would be all the more remarkable if Barletta pulls off a win, proving that even if the next president avoids dealing with immigration for some time, the issue remains a potent force, just under the surface of national politics.