Hazleton drug sting revives call for a law

The mayor said towns need power to crack down on illegal immigrants. A judge threw out the city's rules.

Posted: September 08, 2007

A massive drug sweep that netted at least two non-U.S. citizens in Hazleton, Pa., demonstrates that local municipalities need the power to crack down on illegal immigrants, according to the city's mayor, Lou Barletta.

After a seven-month investigation, the state Attorney General's Office announced Thursday that it had charged 40 people - all of them suspected dealers - with involvement in a Northeast Pennsylvania cocaine ring that allegedly made $31 million over three years and is based in Hazleton.

Among those charged were two illegal immigrants and five or six other noncitizens with green cards who, if convicted, would be deported after serving prison sentences, said Frank Noonan, a regional director for the Attorney General's Office and the agent in charge of the investigation.

A total of 28 suspects are in custody for alleged roles in a regional drug ring that brought in a large volume of cocaine from New York City and drew customers from neighboring counties, Noonan said. Agents are still seeking 12 more people, several of whom may have fled to the Dominican Republic, he said.

Noonan said the case, one of the largest in Luzerne County, was likely to result in many more arrests. "We haven't gone after the customers yet," he said.

Barletta gained national attention last year for pushing through an ordinance that would have penalized businesses that employed illegal immigrants and landlords who rented to them. A federal judge struck down the ordinance in July.

The arrests, Barletta said, should help bolster his legal argument that without a strong federal immigration law, communities need the ability to remove illegal immigrants who commit crimes and drain health-care and social services.

"The time and money spent bringing this operation down was tax money spent on people who shouldn't be here," Barletta said.

Witold Walczak, the ACLU lawyer who represented plaintiffs in the Hazleton ordinance case, said the arrests would have no effect on the federal case.

"To take that situation and suggest that undocumented immigrants are responsible for cocaine distribution in Hazleton is dishonest," Walczak said. "Nobody can deny that some commit crime, but almost all studies find that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than legal citizens."

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.

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