US city built by immigrants mirrors voters' sharp divide

Mr Lara with daughter Amanda and wife Sandra at their home in Hazleton. Its old shopping streets, nearly abandoned in the 1990s, are now lined with Dominican bakeries, travel agencies and Mexican restaurants.
Mr Lara with daughter Amanda and wife Sandra at their home in Hazleton. Its old shopping streets, nearly abandoned in the 1990s, are now lined with Dominican bakeries, travel agencies and Mexican restaurants.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Trump has support of non-Hispanic working class while new arrivals plump for Clinton

HAZLETON (Pennsylvania) • Thousands of Dominicans have poured into this little city in eastern Pennsylvania since 2001 to work in the food plants and warehouses on the edge of town.

Hazleton's population is growing for the first time in more than half a century. Landlords, doctors and shopkeepers are learning to love their new customers.

But the city's economic evolution has left behind its previous, non-Hispanic working class, and the presidential election has crystallised its frustrations.

Many of those losing ground economically, including lifelong Democrats, say they plan to vote for Mr Donald Trump, the Republican nominee. Many of those who are prospering, including lifelong Republicans, say they will vote for the Democrat, Mrs Hillary Clinton.

For both sides, how to deal with immigration has become a defining political issue, one that is likely to transcend the contretemps over Mr Trump's treatment of women that has cost him so much support among elected Republicans.

This city was built by European immigrants who flocked here a century ago to work in the coal mines. Their children found better jobs in the factories.

Now their grandchildren are struggling against economic decline and cultural displacement.

"I don't care for this town no more because of the Hispanics," said Mr Lewis Beishline, 70.

The retired weldermoved from Hazleton to a nearby town last year because he no longer felt safe.

He plans to vote for Mr Trump "because of the immigration".

The Hispanic community, meanwhile, is eager to establish its own political power in the face of what many describe as persistent and painful discrimination.

Community leaders in this city of 25,000 say they have registered more than 800 Hispanic voters in recent months, expanding the voting rolls by almost 10 per cent.

"I tell my kids, if someone asks where you are from, you say 'Hazleton'," said Mr Guillermo Lara, 49, who moved here from Mexico in the early 1990s and whose two daughters were born here. "We're here, and we don't go nowhere. We want more."

That sharp divide is mirrored by the candidates seeking the Oval Office. Beyond his promised wall and deportations, Mr Trump has denigrated immigrants repeatedly, at times without distinguishing between legal and illegal immigration.

"Donald Trump's position on illegal immigration plays a big role in his support not only in Hazleton but in north-east Pennsylvania," said Mr Lou Barletta, a Republican who represents the region in Congress and has stood by his nominee.

In 2006, as Hazleton's mayor, Mr Barletta championed a first-in-the- nation ordinance penalising employers and landlords for dealing with immigrants in the country illegally.

The courts blocked it from taking effect, but Mr Barletta said Mr Trump's popularity reflected the continued demand for stronger government action.

"He's going to win here, and win big," Mr Barletta said. He introduced Mr Trump at a rally in nearby Wilkes-Barre last Monday, declaring that voters in north-eastern Pennsylvania would propel Mr Trump to the White House.

Mrs Clinton, by contrast, has celebrated immigrants, both legal and illegal, as important contributors to American society.

Her campaign describes her plan to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants as one of her most important ideas for increasing economic growth.

The Hispanic population grew faster in Luzerne County, which includes Hazleton, than almost any other county between 2000 and 2011, according to the Pew Research Centre. While immigration has slowed since the 2008 recession, Hispanics continue to move here from larger cities like New York and Paterson, New Jersey.

In the 2000 census, just 4.9 per cent of Hazleton's population identified as Hispanic.

A decade later, that figure was 37 per cent. By 2014, the most recent data available, 46 per cent of the population said it was Hispanic.

In all likelihood, Hazleton is now a majority-Hispanic city, just like the nearby cities of Reading and Allentown.

The Hispanic ascendence emerged from seismic economic shifts, said University of Dayton professor of sociology Jamie Longazel, who grew up just outside Hazleton and wrote a book, Undocumented Fears, about the city's struggles with immigration.

When the local coal mines began to close in the 1950s, Hazleton residents raised money to build an industrial park that attracted factories to the region.

When the factories began to leave in the 1990s, local officials won state permission to create one of Pennsylvania's largest tax-free Keystone Opportunity Zones.

A Cargill meat-processing and distribution plant arrived in 2001. Other distribution businesses have followed, including an warehouse.

The city was also ageing. Almost a quarter of the population was over 65 in 2000, roughly twice the national average.

And nature abhors a vacuum, especially in a workforce.

Many of the new arrivals trace their roots to one Dominican city, San Jose de Ocoa. Hazleton's old shopping streets, nearly abandoned in the 1990s, are now lined with Dominican bakeries, barber shops, travel agencies and Mexican restaurants.

The Italian restaurants are run by Mexican families. The city has two Spanish radio stations and a television station that broadcasts six hours of local programming a day.

Dermatologist Stephen Schleicher said Hispanic residents now made up a third of his patients. He has hired a bilingual receptionist and is looking for a bilingual nurse.

Dr Schleicher, a lifelong Republican, said that Mr Trump's views on immigration had persuaded him, albeit reluctantly, to vote for Mrs Clinton. "We're seeing a total revitalisation despite the government trying to keep the immigrants out," he said. "It would have been a ghost town of older white people."

Yet it is easy to overstate Hazleton's recovery. Many of the new jobs pay poorly.

Almost 29 per cent of the population lived in poverty in 2014, almost twice the national average.

Hazleton still has no Hispanic elected officials. The city just added its first Hispanic police officer.

The public school system, which has very few Hispanic teachers, was ordered by the federal Department of Education in 2014 to improve efforts to teach English to immigrants, and to communicate with parents. But a second generation of Hispanic Americans in Hazleton may force change.

Mr Lara worked three jobs to pay private school tuition so his daughters could avoid Hazleton's high school. After 12-hour days in a factory, he washed dishes at night and cleaned offices on weekends.

Two years ago, his elder daughter Amanda graduated from Ithaca College in upstate New York with a degree in psychology and came home. She teaches after-school classes for Hispanic children in the building that was once her elementary school.

Ms Lara, who is studying for a master's degree, said racial tensions had increased.

At the city's annual Funfest, she noticed an empty space between the Hispanic vendors and the Polish and Italian vendors.

"And I hear it from my kids," she said of her students. "They're not dumb. They can tell when they're not liked or they're not welcome."

But she said she was unsure if she wanted to move away.

"People say, 'Why would you want to stay there?'" she said. "Well, for one thing, this is my home town."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 16, 2016, with the headline 'US city built by immigrants mirrors voters' sharp divide'. Print Edition | Subscribe