by Jamie Longazel
Lou Barletta, who represents Pennsylvania’s 11th Congressional District, was among the 217 legislators who voted in favor of the American Health Care Act last week.
One of the earliest members of Congress to publicly support Donald Trump, Barletta made a national name for himself as Mayor of Hazleton when he spearheaded the Illegal Immigration Relief Act (IIRA) in 2006. Riding the wave of popularity generated from his hard-line anti-immigrant stance, he has held his current office since unseating longtime Democratic incumbent Paul Kanjorski in 2010.
Some have called the ACHA “wealth-care,” since it is likely to favor the rich at the expense of poor and working class people. This is not the first time Barletta has catered to ruling class interests at the expense of the rest of us.
As I chronicle in my book, Undocumented Fears, Barletta pushed the IIRA without any evidence to support his anti-immigrant claims. In his version of the story, undocumented immigrants were wreaking havoc on his city – committing crimes, draining resources, and the like. Yet I show how in reality it was economic policies favoring the wealthy that were responsible for Hazleton’s decline.
Like Trump, Barletta has a tendency to elevate demagoguery over truth. “I don’t need numbers,” he boasted when confronted with the reality that undocumented immigrants did not increase crime in Hazleton. At the same time he has masked how his own political decisions have done more harm than good for his constituents, including some of his most ardent supporters.
Although there was no evidence to support his claim that “illegal aliens in our city create an economic burden that threatens our quality of life,” there is plenty of evidence of Barletta burdening city resources.
Back in 2001, as mayor, he gave his blessing to local developers seeking to implement a state-level corporate welfare initiative that provided exploitative multinational companies with massive tax breaks. Some enjoyed a moratorium on all taxes for a dozen years. Hazleton today provides a clear example of how a city cannot provide its residents with adequate services when its largest employers do not pay their fair share.
More directly, Barletta took advantage of the system for his own benefit by dragging his exclusionary law through a years-long appeal process. While increasing his political capital by refusing to “back down,” he ignored clear pronouncements that this would cost the city immensely.
Indeed, it has.
Hazleton – which operates on an annual budget of less than $10 million – now owes $1.4 million in legal fees. As the Editorial Board of the Citizen’s Voice so appropriately put it, “[T]he residents of Hazleton will have to consider [this] an involuntary contribution to [Barletta’s] campaign war chest.”
Silencing critics who sought to add complexity to the debate, Barletta regularly uttered the simplistic, faux-populist line “illegal is illegal.” The hypocrisy of this was in full view as he reacted to the court’s determination that he overstepped federal authority and violated the Equal Protection Clause. He unleashed Trump-like criticisms of judges, attacked immigrant rights groups, and mused about a rigged system.
Because Barletta hails from a hardscrabble former coal mining town, it is understandable that some have mistakenly seen him as a populist. Hazleton, after all, has one of the richest histories of labor organizing you will find.
But we shouldn’t let that fool us. Lou Barletta’s pro-corporate / anti-immigrant stance is alien to the working class legacy of Pennsylvania’s Anthracite Coal Region. He has more in common with the barons of the mining era than he does with the miners, enabling exploitation more than protecting us from it. What should worry us most are his efforts to pit working people against one another, a duplication of a mining-era tactic that coal bosses regularly used to secure their power and wealth.
In November, both Barletta and Trump were widely popular in Hazleton. But just as resistance against Trump mounts at the national level and his approval ratings slide, local folks are increasingly calling Lou Barletta’s bluff. It is so essential for us to keep this momentum up. If his vote for the AHCA is any indication, our lives may depend on it.
Some of Barletta’s D-11 constituents are hosting a “Healthcare Not Wealthcare Protest” in front of Barletta’s Hazleton office on Thursday (5/11) afternoon. More info is available here.
Jamie Longazel is the author of Undocumented Fears: Immigration and the Politics of Divide and Conquer in Hazleton, Pennsylvania.