Politics & Policy

The Man from Alabama, Pa.

Rep. Lou Barletta on Capitol Hill in 2010 (Reuters photo: Jim Young)
Senate candidate Lou Barletta understands the fears of small-town Pennsylvanians.

Immigration matters in Hazleton. The northern Pennsylvania town is the home of Republican congressman Lou Barletta, whose 2018 campaign for Senate against incumbent Bob Casey has just begun. Barletta, the polished Italian American, looks the ambitious type in both style and CV: He served as mayor of Hazleton from 1998 to 2010 and ran for Congress thrice over that span. He finally won in 2010 and has been the representative for Pennsylvania’s eleventh district — which stretches from Luzerne County all the way down to Carlisle — ever since. But while some ambitious politicians are determined to leave their towns behind and enter the world of Washington, what animates Barletta is something quite different. Barletta is concerned about what, apparently, plagues his hometown and the rest of his beloved state: illegal immigration.

“They get it,” Barletta tells National Review. “Pennsylvanians understand that illegal immigration depresses wages, puts their jobs at risk, makes it harder at schools or to receive care from hospitals. They understand what it means.” He’s long taken a hard rhetorical line. In 2015, at a panel discussion hosted by the Center for Immigration Studies, Barletta asked: “How many innocent people need to be murdered before we stop the [soft] policies dealing with illegal immigration?” Politically speaking, whether illegal immigration is the chief problem facing Pennsylvanians is less important than whether Pennsylvanians think it is. And so the question for Barletta’s political future is whether he understands the concerns of rural Pennsylvania mind, which he certainly does.

Pennsylvania is a big state. The Commonwealth is large enough to have a hinterland. Agriculture is a key business.

It’s also an old one. Entire industries have been born, grown, shrunk, died, and been reclaimed by the forest. One of them is coal, and Hazleton, an old coal town, has gone the way coal towns do. The veins of anthracite running through central and eastern Pennsylvania, and their proximity to ports across the eastern seaboard, caused European immigrants to migrate there during the 19th century. But as Simon Bronner, a professor at Penn State Harrisburg and the founding director of the Center for Pennsylvania Culture Studies, tells National Review, economic progress in the early 20th century “displaced the coal towns and deindustrialized much of the state.” And while western Pennsylvania replaced anthracite with bituminous, and then replaced coal with steel, the central and eastern parts of the state struggled to find a new mainstay industry once their mining days were done.

In their heyday, these coal towns were diverse in the 19th-century fashion, full of Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Dutch, and Irish immigrants. Their churches — Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox — still dominate local architecture. Standing on the main drag in Ashland, which curves down a mountainside with houses lining the edge, one gets a sense of the past. Traditions die hard here: In the winter holidays, families still make “boilo,” a concoction of steeped fruit and Lithuanian spirits. Outsiders gawk at the bags of coal for sale outside convenience stores.

But mining is now strictly a niche business in what some have christened “Coal Cracker” country, and with economic dislocation come social consequences. Tourist attractions still focus on the old days, but things have become different. With the end of mining, “Mexican and Puerto Rican immigrants,” Bronner says, entered the state “for work in agriculture, construction, or services. At the same time, young descendants of the European immigrants left for faraway colleges.”

“This migration helped these towns,” Bronner says. “But there’s definitely a view that things are not what they were. There’s a reaction that these people are taking away jobs that were there previously. Families that had immigrated in the late 19th century don’t want to relocate, but they suddenly faced social change.”

Today, their identities are subsumed under one label: small-town white America. They watch as their economies shrink and their populations change. It’s worth asking what Pennsylvania offers them nowadays, and who cares for their well-being.

Lou Barletta aspires to fill that void. “These are blue-collar, hard-working Americans who watched their grandparents and parents work very hard,” Barletta says of Hazletonians. “The challenges they face are the same challenges people face in towns just like it all across the state.” Barletta has a keen sense of their anxieties, and no wonder: The Barlettas go back generations in Hazleton.

Now, people whose families have lived in Pennsylvania for generations shudder as immigrants who do not share their language or take time to assimilate into their culture flow into their towns. This was football country. Remember the stadium, abuzz with kids and adults alike every Friday night? It was baseball country. Remember Stanley Coveleski and his spitball? Newcomers prefer Liga MX on Univision. Old-timers hear about immigrant crime. They wonder why it takes years for their new neighbors to learn English while their grandparents picked it up quickly. Some are less concerned about their wallets or football games, and are instead motivated by an uglier disquiet, but financial and cultural worries need not be leavened with racial animosity. Salaried jobs vanish; drugs pour in; the town feels different: These are sufficient reasons to make up your mind. All the while, distant politicians and commentators point and scoff, belittling their concerns or deeming them de facto bigoted.

Given the Democratic position on immigration control — the less the better — it’s no wonder Barletta was elected mayor in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, and to the House in a Democratic district. Having been elected in 1998, Barletta rose to the national spotlight in 2006, when, as mayor of Hazleton, he worked with Kris Kobach (Kansas’s secretary of state) to implement a strict ordinance cracking down on . . . guess. The ordinance, part of his vow to make Hazleton “one of the toughest places in the United States for illegal aliens,” was struck down by federal courts. But Barletta hasn’t softened his tone. The current director of the Center for Pennsylvania Culture Studies, Michael Barton, sees this focus as instrumental in Barletta’s political success. “There’s been a tendency to dismiss him as a retrograde ethnic rabble-rouser, but it’s more profound than that,” Barton says. “Clearly he’s been able to strike a responsive chord.”

Immigration figures to be a wedge issue between him and his would-be opponent, incumbent senator Bob Casey. Casey, the favorite in the race, is the son of Robert Casey, a popular former governor still revered 17 years after his death. The elder Casey was one of the last pro-life, Catholic Democrats, and lived long enough to see his beliefs become anathema in the party he served his whole life.

The 2018 race draws interest from national commentators looking for a story to imbue with national significance. The younger Casey is a fierce critic of the president, while Barletta was one of the first congressmen to endorse him as a candidate. But it’s Pennsylvania, not Donald Trump, that will move the needle one way or another. Barletta tells National Review that Casey “has moved very far to the left, and might be out of touch with mainstream Pennsylvania values.” (In a campaign video, he sounds a more combative tone, accusing Casey of “building up a war chest bankrolled by the most extreme liberal special-interest groups in the country.”)

Yet Pennsylvania is one of the more divided states around. Simultaneously rural and urban, famously described by James Carville as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between, the state is more than hollowed-out coal towns. The derisively named Pennsyltucky region remains a rapt audience for Barletta’s platform, but changing state demographics and the diversity of its urban areas pose an obstacle for his path to victory.

And the demographics really are changing, even in Barletta country. “Anecdotally, my hometown has become incredibly more diverse,” Tim Schock, a data analyst at the Pennsylvania State Data Center, tells National Review. “Twenty years ago, it was the primarily white legacy of the coal town. Nowadays it looks a little different.” The data bear that out. The Hispanic or Latino population of Pennsylvania grew by 83 percent between 2000 and 2010. In Luzerne County, where Hazleton is located, the population of ethnic minorities grew by more than 100 percent — as it did, too, in nearby Lackawanna, Columbia, Carbon, Monroe, Pike, and Wayne counties: Most of that was due to the increasing Hispanic or Latino population. Since then, the shift has continued, with the Hispanic or Latino population of Luzerne continuing to rise between 2011 and 2015. The migration has caused population growth in Hazleton for the first time in decades, but the town’s economic decline since its coal-fired heyday has not stopped.

Nothing can reverse these shifts. Dreaming about a return to monochromatic blue-collar yesterdays is bootless. But this migration has led to a political reaction. A coldly mathematical look at the state’s political trajectory shows a rightward course, driven in large part by western and northeastern Pennsylvania. These are the parts of the state scorned by the ongoing rhetorical revolution. They are filled with Pennsylvanians proud of the role their forebears played in building things, including this country. To hear themselves classified as a vestigial problem to be gotten past is insulting, and sounds like a threat.

Barletta’s bet is that, for those angered by such insinuations, immigration is of paramount importance. “Democrats may say I’m a single-issue politician,” Barletta tells NR, “but that shows me they don’t understand the importance of that issue. It affects so many things.”

But inchoate feelings about immigrants do not answer the question of how to fix rural Pennsylvania or the rest of rural America. Sure, there are reasonable arguments for why this country ought to tighten the immigration system, prioritize newcomers with specific skills, and generally recalibrate its policy as to what immigrants are supposed to bring to America. Doing so would benefit the residents of Hazleton — white, black, and Hispanic alike.

But even if Barletta occasionally alludes to such arguments, his approach remains controversial. Up here, fixing immigration means something besides attracting more computer-savvy South Asians. It means reversing what looks like a self-congratulatory preference for prospective Americans at the expense of existing ones. Barletta’s pitch resonates with white Pennsylvanians, but it could benefit from becoming more inclusive, more pan-ethnic. And there are worse problems facing Pennsylvanians than long wait lines in hospitals or the sometimes dishonestly inflated level of immigrant crime.

All of this is to say that immigration restrictionism does not an agenda make. Barletta knows it. Asked what other projects he has worked on, Barletta cites his cost-cutting on the House Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure as well as his spearheading of the SHINE after-school program, which has buoyed graduation rates among participating schools. These, he says, are “issues that really matter for Pennsylvanians.” But it is immigration for which Barletta is most known, and immigration about which he is most outspoken. And it is immigration that has become the sign pointing — at times misleadingly — toward the other and dire problems besetting small-town Pennsylvania.

“When it comes to illegal immigration, the conversation’s always about the illegal immigrant — not about the people it’ll affect,” Barletta said in 2014. It’s clear that Barletta concerns himself more with the plight of Hazletonians than with the hopes of assorted dreamers. The question for 2018 is how many Pennsylvanians share those priorities — and how well Barletta can express them.

Editor’s Note: This article has been emended since its initial publication. 

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