A Florida Mayor Turns to an Immigration Curb to Fix a Fading City

Published: July 10, 2006

AVON PARK, Fla., July 6 Tom Macklin, the mayor of this faded city deep in Florida's citrus belt, heard the idea on talk radio and latched on with relish.

A city up north, Hazleton, Pa., planned to root out and punish landlords who rented to illegal immigrants, fining them $1,000 for every such tenant. Mr. Macklin, whose own small city has swelled with immigrants from Mexico, Haiti and Jamaica over the past decade, swiftly proposed the same for Avon Park.

"It was almost as if I was sitting in church at a revival and he was preaching to me," Mr. Macklin said of Mayor Lou Barletta of Hazleton, whom he heard promoting that city's Illegal Immigration Relief Act on the radio show last month. "If we address the housing issue make it as difficult as possible for illegals to find safe haven in Avon Park then they are going to have to find someplace else to go."

Like Hazleton's proposal, Avon Park's would deny business permits to companies that knowingly hired illegal immigrants. The ordinance, which states that illegal immigration "destroys our neighborhoods and diminishes our overall quality of life," would also make English the official language of Avon Park, removing Spanish from all city documents, signs and automated phone messages.

The proposal has some of Avon Park's roughly 8,800 residents exalting, others fuming and still others including those who rent rooms or apartments in the scruffy Golden Age Villas, west of the abandoned train tracks plain scared. The City Council passed it 3 to 2 on the first reading and is likely to adopt it July 24.

"We just wouldn't be able to stay here," said Armando Garcia Cortes, 45, who said he came to Avon Park, about 80 miles southeast of Orlando, from Veracruz, Mexico, to pick oranges and fix roofs. "They're going to see the farmworker population here drop. We would all be leaving."

John Koch, who sells glassware and model cars at the Broken Spoke Flea Market on Main Street, said that would be fine.

"I think it's long overdue," Mr. Koch said of the proposal. "If you don't put a cap on it, it just gets out of hand."

Both Mr. Macklin and Mr. Barletta said they were forced into drastic measures by the federal government's failure to crack down on illegal immigration. Both said that tightening the nation's borders would be the best solution, but that with Congress still divided on immigration policy, they had to take action.

"When you have people begging you to do something, there comes a breaking point," said Mr. Barletta, whose family settled in Hazleton when it was a thriving coal center in the early 1900's. "I feel very confident that what we're doing is not only legal, but the right thing to do. I can't sit back and watch my city being destroyed."

Both mayors, white baby boomers who grew up in the 1960's and 70's, speak wistfully of the days when nuclear families were the only occupants of single-family homes in their towns, every resident paid taxes and English was the only language heard on the streets. Mr. Macklin said the City of Charm, as Avon Park has long called itself, no longer met that description, despite the gazebo and shuffleboard courts on Main Street, several dainty lakes and ubiquitous live oaks.

"When people come to our area," he said, "they see degrading neighborhoods, homes falling down among themselves, four or five vehicles parked in yards. There's a perception for those that come to this area looking to perhaps expand a business, move here that it might not necessarily be where they want to be."

Mr. Macklin, a Republican whose City Council is nonpartisan, said he had been bombarded with positive feedback since proposing the ordinance in late June, even getting e-mail messages from California and Illinois. But some residents have called him racist, and others, like Joe Wright, a dairy farmer who said two-thirds of his work force was Hispanic, said the ordinance would be unenforceable and unconstitutional.

"It's going to be impossible to police," said Mr. Wright, whose dairy, outside the city, has many employees who live in Avon Park. "Are they actually going to have their zoning people and policemen racially profile every Hispanic-looking person? I mean, this just has a very chilling effect."

Mr. Macklin said he expected opposition from citrus growers and cattle farmers, many of whom say that they hire only workers with Social Security cards, but that they cannot be sure the cards are authentic. The law would punish only those who knowingly hired or rented to illegal immigrants, he said.

But Mary Bauer, director of the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the proposal violated several laws, including the Fair Housing Act and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

"The real problem is that it's obvious the effect of this will be to discriminate against immigrants and Latinos generally," Ms. Bauer said, adding that the center might sue if the ordinance passed. "Any thinking landlord reading this would likely decide that renting to immigrants or Latinos is a risky proposition."

Cesar A. Perales, president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, said he had sent two lawyers to meet with Hispanic groups in Hazleton recently and might sue to stop its ordinance.

"The Latino community is just about as angry as any I've ever seen," Mr. Perales said. "They've come to Hazleton to be part of that community, and they certainly improved the economic conditions of what by most accounts was a dying town, and helped revitalize it. And they now feel they are being blamed for every ill in the city."

Mr. Barletta said his proposal, up for a final vote July 13, was modeled on a similar one in San Bernardino, Calif., which stalled because its proponents failed to gather enough signatures to get it on the ballot. He wrote it, he said, after illegal immigrants committed several rattling crimes in Hazleton, a city of 31,000, this year.

Both proposals have led to false rumors that have fanned fears in recent weeks. At the Golden Age Villas in Avon Park, Ashley Neff, 20, whose boyfriend is an illegal immigrant from Mexico, said she had heard that speaking Spanish would not be allowed in shops and restaurants.

"They're saying they're not even going to let people in grocery stores," Ms. Neff said. "How is that fair? Even a lot of the people who are legal citizens prefer to speak Spanish because it comes easier to them."

Down the street, Patrick Graham, a Jamaican immigrant who said he was here legally, said it was foolish to force out illegal immigrants because nobody else would work in the fields and groves.

"I sure ain't going out there to pick any oranges," said Mr. Graham, who owns a window-cleaning business. "All the hard work, the Mexicans are doing it."

Melva Santana, a shopkeeper who was among a crowd of whites, blacks and Hispanics eating at Taqueria Merlo on Thursday, said she feared the ordinance would encourage people who had kept their prejudices quiet to begin harassing immigrants.

This week, Ms. Santana said, a sales clerk refused to sell her sister beer because she had a Puerto Rico driver's license, and the clerk said, "I can't read it."

At the flamingo-pink Avon Motel, which has operated here for 52 years, Dale Graham, the manager, said he suspected that the proposal had come about because illegal immigrants were not only picking citrus these days but also getting construction and other higher-paying jobs.

"I think they're just a scapegoat," Mr. Graham said. "What it comes down to is the city is resistant to any kind of change or growth."

Outside the motel, a sign read: American Family Owned. Drive Safely.