Anti-Immigration Rally, Hazleton

Hazleton: Divided and Conquered (Interview)

Jamie Longazel is the author of the new book, “Undocumented Fears: Immigration and the Politics of Divide and Conquer in Hazleton, Pennsylvania.”

What happened in Hazleton and why did you write a book about it?

Around 2000-2001, Hazleton’s population began to change quite a lot. It went from 95% white to around 35% Latino a few years later. Then, in 2006, there was a high-profile murder. Two undocumented Latino men were accused of murdering a white Hazleton resident. And at that point, basically the town, lead by Mayor Lou Barletta, began what we call in sociology, a “moral panic.” The newspaper started talking about how horrible this crime was, how this is a reflection of a bigger pattern where undocumented immigrants are  committing all sorts of crime in the city- selling drugs, using drugs, etc, and draining the city’s resources.

There was no evidence to support any of these claims, by the way. And then just a few weeks later, the city passed the “Illegal Immigrant Relief Act,” a law that was going to punish businesses for hiring undocumented immigrants, punish landlords for renting to undocumented immigrants, and make english the official language of Hazleton.

All Legals Served
“All Legals Served” sign on Road’s End Pub, now closed. (Photo from NPR)

Its interesting. I lived in Hazleton until 2001, and was in graduate school at the time the law had passed. I was a sociology student, thinking about a topic to write about for my dissertation. I was interested in race and law, criminalization of immigrants and other populations. Just from talking to people, I knew some changes were taking place back home, but I didn’t at the time realize the extent of them.

The ordinance passed in the summer, so it was probably late summer I’d started to hear about the ordinance in the national news. I was struck at first—what’s 60 Minutes doing in Hazleton? I didn’t know it was so big. And I’m not sure many others did, either. This was before Arizona passed their ‘tough-on-immigration’ SB1070, the “show me your papers” law that basically allowed law enforcement to stop anyone who they thought “looked like” an undocumented immigrant.

Immigrant Vigil, Hazleton
Immigrant Vigil, Hazleton

Why was it so personal?Big deal or not, though, the point is it fit really well with what I had been thinking about in an academic sense and so it seemed like a worthwhile project. Initially, I was like “oh wow, this is my hometown. I know the landscape and this is interesting.” I didn’t realize how personal it would become for me.

The more I dug into this, and the history of the city, I realized how much the city’s history was characterized by rich people taking advantage of poor people. The coal barons taking advantage of the miners is the prime example, but there’s plenty more examples as you move through history into the present day. Really, you can say Hazleton has had generations of barons, not just dealing in coal. And as it started to become clear to me just how much of this there was, I also started to realize just how central this all was to my own background and my own story.

Before I had a basic understanding of where I was from and what that meant. But the more I dug into the history and into this case, I realized in a really profound way that my origins are in this working class community. It means something for my life. It explains how people around me have been treated, the hardships they’ve endured, a lot of those things.

That reminds me of my niece. At the end of her town is a huge pile of coal. I said something about it recently and she didn’t know what I was talking about. I asked if she knew where coal was, and she said “under the ground.” Somehow you can grow up in the shadow of these things, but it doesn’t click. You only get the basics.

Yeah, in one of my elementary school classes, we went to Eckley Miners’ Village and on the Scranton Coal Mine Tour. I felt like, “Oh, there used to be coal mining here… cool!” But that was it. I don’t ever remember there being a lot of connecting the past to the present.

Go on about why this was personal.

In some ways, I started because I felt the way immigrants were being treated was morally wrong. Especially since the war on drugs began, we’d been connecting crime with people of color and we’d been relying on political rhetoric rather than facts. I saw that and thought it was wrong. What I discovered is that it was wrong — my views on this haven’t changed. But on top of that I also noticed that there’s more economic injustice than I had

In the book, I use this phrase “divide and conquer”. The trick elites use is they push one group down while lifting the other one up, just slightly. In my book I explain how immigrants being treated the way they are is disturbing, but it’s also connected to the economic inequality that working-class whites face, and working class whites are encouraged to see themselves as separate from immigrants. We cling to nostalgia; we cling to this fantasy idea of “Small Town, America”; we claim that at one point our cities were so great – back when “we” were in control – and now they’ve gone to hell since “they’ve” arrived. That’s the boost we white working class people are offered and that we, I would say, all-too-commonly embrace. Things may not be going well, but “at least we’re not illegal”. That’s what distracts us from the bigger problem. Instead of saying “we’re poor and this is the history of our city— we should fight back,” we focus on building walls and deportation and all of that stuff.

So why is this personal? Because to an extent I feel I have been lied to. I feel like the message has always been about following the “American Dream” and embracing “Small Town Americana” and avoiding “bad parts of town”. But what does that actually do for me? For my working class friends and relatives? For the people who are more marginalized than me? Who actually benefits from these stories?

Ok, so there’s some other players here then? Who

Coal Barron George Baer
Coal baron George Baer, President of the Reading Railroad, who said during the strike of 1902, “These men don’t suffer. Why, hell, half of them don’t even speak English.”

are the “new coal barons”?

Many of the multinational companies who have opened distribution centers, warehouses, and a meat-packing plant outside of Hazleton recently, for example, have played a big role in attracting immigrant labor in the first place.At the highest level, it’s the people in charge of the multi-national corporations that own most of the wealth in the US and the world.

Here’s how they’re like coal barons: They attract inexpensive labors to increase their profit. They expose workers to dangerous conditions. Meat packing plants have cold temperatures, sharp objects, disease. Long hours. Inability to unionize for workers. And the companies… Cargill got a dozen years tax-free in the Humboldt Industrial Park. It’s all pretty similar to what some coal barons had done. I could go on. And they do a good job of presenting themselves really good for the community, which covers up the ugliness they are practicing.

Coal barons were also famous for divide and conquer tactics. Mine bosses scapegoated new immigrant groups so that old immigrant groups blamed them. They accused them of “taking jobs” and things like that, while the mine bosses kept the people’s attention away from what they were actually doing.  Much like today’s “job creators,” the barons presented themselves as moral, upstanding citizens who were doing workers a favor by offering them a job.  It’s just like how today’s politicians are diverting the attention of white workers, urging them to look down the social ladder at immigrants rather than up it at those who are responsible for their economic plight.

How do we stop the cycle of fear and racism?

Oh man. Great question.

The title of my book has a few meanings. The first one is just a play on the term “undocumented immigrants”… as in, the undocumented are who many are fearful of.

It also means that fears about immigrants committing crime and draining social services are … undocumented. They’re not actually happening. In that sense, there’s nothing to be afraid of. There’s not an undocumented immigrant crime wave. And the arrival of immigrants does not spell the end of our cities, states, or our country. It never has. So how do we overcome this type of fear? I think we need to search for the truth. And I think once we find it, we need to make sure it wins out over stereotypes and misconceptions.

The third meaning refers to the fear that doesn’t get acknowledged in immigration debates. That is economic fear or anxiety— a general uncertainty about the future. People are afraid. Manufacturing jobs are leaving, it’s harder to find jobs with benefits, temporary jobs are taking their place, there’s an increase in boarded up houses, drugs are appearing on the street more so than in the past. All these things scare the crap out of people, and rightfully so, because poverty is a scary thing that no one wants to live through. But in the debates over the [the Anti-Immigrant Law], these fears never came up. Well that’s not totally true — they did, but they were always presented as something else. For example, drugs were said to be the result of “their” (immigrants) so-called criminality; boarded up homes were attributed to “their” so-called carelessness and laziness. Things like that. So even though they may come from a similar place, these kinds of complaints are very different from people opening up about uncertainty and anxiety…. very different from admitting that there are some doubts about whether we have access to enough resources to ensure our own

In your book, and in this interview, you’re implying there’s something we should be doing instead of blaming immigrants. What is it?

We ought to come together as poor and working class people and make demands for economic and racial justice in our communities. There’s a number of ways to do that. One important way is to break down our misunderstandings, to call out these myths when they occur.

The last chapter of the book is called “Recovering Authenticity”. It’s referring to how most of the debate was based on things that were untrue or not direct confrontations with reality. Based on myths about immigrants, or these kind of stories like, “these tax breaks are so great.” “We’re going to attract hundreds of jobs.” This kind of narrative leaves out a lot of important details – about the quality of the jobs, for example – and doesn’t fully recognize the struggles real people are going through.

What I conclude (spoiler alert!) is that we ought to get real about this stuff. We ought to be authentic. To call out racism when we see it, to draw attention to economic injustice. Rather than relying on the developers who give us sanitized stories about how many jobs they created in the last quarter or something like that, we need to give voice to the person who is struggling to pay their medical bills. Or has all the qualifications but can’t find a job.

To go back to what I was saying in the beginning about my own journey, reconnecting with our history is an important way to do this. If we can recognize that the legacy of coal mining and economic relationships of coal mining are still with us and have shaped the world we’re living in now…. if we’re able to appreciate past struggles. The coal region has one of the richest histories of people rising up against bosses, workers demanding better pay and conditions, even people coming together across difference to demand better treatment… it’s ironic but it’s also tragic that of all places, here in the coal region we’ve managed to fall for this again.

If we become more connected to our history and become more aware of the reality that we live in, we will be better able to resist these ugly divide and conquer politics. We will be able to fight back against and resist racism, and fight back against and resist economic injustice.

Jamie’s book is out now! He will be speaking about it in PA towns this summer. If you want to get him to your town, contact the blog at nix.nootz@gamil.com.

You can get your copy of Undocumented Fears here. Order from Amazon (the Walmart of the Web) if you want some irony—it might just be picked by temp worker in Hazleon’s Humboldt Industrial park! This is no suggestion of a boycott, but you can learn more about Amazon behind-the-scenes here and here.

Undocumented Fears by Jamie Longazel
Undocumented Fears by Jamie Longazel

9 comments

  1. I have said many of the same things Jamie seems to be addressing. But until we have a leader or leaders who say enough is enough, along with the people this type of behavior and attitude will continue. Barletta’s illegal immigration ordinance never had any legal standing. So after millions of tax dollars spent the court said you can not pass this law(s) Hazleton. But everyone fails to see what it did do; Lou Barletta is now a congressman! At the time of the passing of the illegal immigration ordinance he may not have won his next mayoral race. He had the city so far in debt, taxes were threatening to double and triple, which they have since Barletta left office.. The city is in trouble, but immigrants are not the reason. Oh they have contributed to our over crowding in the public schools, crime has increased, but just based on the increase in population it only makes sense. Right now Hazleton needs a strong mayor, one who will fight for the people, all people of Hazleton. Do we have that in Mr. Cusat? I hope so!

    1. I hope so, too, Grace. I think it’s important to remember that Hazleton was duped, like Jamie points out. It can be hard for a lot of people to see through. But people like you need to stay (patiently) vocal so that, as Barletta’s spell wears off, they can see the bigger picture. We’ve got work to do! But hundreds of people have read and shared this article so far—many from Hazleton and it’s patch towns. You’re not alone.

      Also, I recommend reading this article, if you haven’t already. It explains who’s behind laws like these across America.

    1. Myself? No. You can read more of this blog if you want to get a sense of where I’m from. Jamie, he was raised there, and I believe most of his family lives there, but he is now a professor at University of Dayton.

  2. Your assumptions are wrong. There is an increase in crime and drug abuse. Look at the facts and numbers. No one is afraid of undocumented people. We simply want them to work also. The government not the companies take half of our paychecks and give it to people who do not work because they are lazy not in need. Our residents foot the bill for educating their children to a high degree. Most of our residents are senior citizens with a fixed income. Who are you working for and where did you really grow up? If you lived in Hazleton your whole life you would be more informed.

    1. I think you’ve got a strange set of assumptions, yourself. You can read about me on this blog (which I run out of pocket. I’m employed in construction, since you asked,) and you can read about Jamie in this post or in his book. I think, if you gave his book an honest read, you’d find that you have similar goals and a different way of thinking about them. For instance, if the plants in the industrial parks hadn’t had KOZ tax abatements, they would have contributed millions upon millions to the school system. I agree with you, the burden shouldn’t fall on senior citizens. But the attack on immigrant neighbors, especially given the coal region’s history, is shameful.

      As for facts, Jamie is a scholar. His book is very well documented. Again, I recommend you give it a read with an open mind.

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