By Ramsey Cox - 06/20/11 09:15 AM EDT
Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) said he didn’t choose illegal immigration as his defining political issue when he implemented an Arizona-style bill while mayor of a small Pennsylvania city — but that issue has followed him to Washington.
“It wasn’t something I ever thought about doing or had an urge to do. [The city ordinance] came out of pure frustration with Washington and the federal government,” Barletta said.
Barletta said he saw first-hand as mayor how illegal immigration negatively affected the quality of life in a small community.
“Our population grew by 50 percent. However, our taxes remained the same. In a city that is barely getting by with its small budget, something like illegal immigration can be the difference from being able to provide the level of public service that people expect,” Barletta said. “It was affecting education, it was affecting healthcare [and] it was affecting our public service.”
Barletta said the Hazleton-area school district’s English as a Second Language (ESL) program budget was $500 in 2000 but exploded to $1.5 million in 2006.
In 2005, Barletta came to Washington, D.C., and met with the Justice Department about the illegal immigration problem in his town.
“I was so excited and encouraged. They brought all the experts in to sit with me and hear me out. At the end of that meeting, I got this nice coffee mug, a lapel pin and a pat of the back and a push out the door and a ‘Good luck,’” Barletta said. “I realized that Washington and the federal government wasn’t going to help me. I took an oath to help the people of Hazleton and protect them, so we created an ordinance.”
Although Barletta said he wasn’t popular with politicians after introducing the ordinance, it gave him national attention and he received letters and donations of support from across the country.
Six years after the ordinance Barletta was elected to Congress and, he said, “Washington has still failed to address the issue [of illegal immigration].”
Last month, Barletta introduced his first bill, the “Mobilizing Against Sanctuary Cities Act,” which would prohibit any federal funding for “sanctuary cities.”
Barletta said mayors in more than 100 cities are protecting illegal immigrants by not reporting information to the federal government.
“Mayors do not have that authority to pick and choose what laws they’re going to enforce,” Barletta said. “And at a time where right now we’re watching 80-year-old grandmothers ... being touched in airports for the sake of national security, [and] on the other hand we have more than 100 cities where mayors are protecting could-be-terrorists ... this is wrong.”
Barletta said his bill is not only about national security but also the economy. “When unemployment is over 9 percent and so many Americans are out of work, now seems to be the best time [for this bill],” Barletta said.
“Here we are cutting senior citizens’ assistance for heating and at the same time we have people who are defrauding America through either welfare [or] not paying taxes, and the federal government continues to turn its back. American people are fed up with it and I’m going to be [their] voice.”
Barletta said he is not anti-Hispanic and he argued that no one is hurt more by illegal immigration than legal immigrants.
“[Legal immigrants] have waited, came here, respected the rule of law in this country ...They want all the opportunities that America has to offer and we’re allowing an underground workforce to come in and compete for their jobs,” Barletta said. “That’s not fair to them, to the legal immigrants.”
When asked if the House GOP leadership supports his bill, Barletta said, “I haven’t asked them.” “I’ve never asked for permission for anything in the past when it comes to what I believe in and I’ll make my case and hopefully it will get support,” Barletta said. “I just want to keep America safe. Who could be against that?”
Bucking party leadership might help Barletta’s re-election in his traditionally Democratic district. Obama carried the 11th district in the 2008 presidential election with 57 percent of the vote. Barletta said he’s used to running for office in Democratic territory.
“People know that I’m going to do what’s right,” Barletta said. “It’s people before party with me, and it seems to work.”