Hazelton_police_2 The ACLU won't often get caught up defending the Bush administration's right to regulate, but that is the situation developing in the federal case regarding Hazleton, PA's "Illegal Immigration Relief Act."

The statute's title sounds like burly Congressional thunder, perhaps threatening fences in the Southwest or adjustments to federal naturalization mechanisms. But little Hazleton (pop. 23,000) has jiggered up this law all by itself -- though the feds are certainly involved now.

The law requires anyone who wants to rent an apartment in town to show proof of citizenship at the town hall. It also provides for stiff penalties for any business that hires an illegal immigrant or any landlord who rents to one. And it also makes English the official language of the town, just in case that was going to be a problem. The mayor and other backers of the law say the increasing numbers of illegal immigrants have brought more crime to the heretofore sleepy hamlet and that if the federal government won't do anything about it, goshdarnit, they will.

Arguments opened on Monday in a federal case brought by the ACLU and residents of the town who oppose the measure; the ACLU will argue, in part, on federal preemption grounds -- "Hey, this is for the INS to handle!"

In response, Hazleton hired the former head of immigration from John Ashcroft's DoJ. (For a full analysis of the federal preemption angle, see this CRS report.)

Already many other towns across the country are eyeing the case closely, and some have even asked Hazleton for a copy of the law, perhaps to use as a blueprint. On the other hand, some communities have taken the opposite tack, ducking local enforcement of national immigration laws. New Haven, CT, for example, is trotting out its own immigration program, of sorts.

While the present national stance may not be the happiest arrangement for every Mayberry or Mayfield, town-by-town immigration policy surely risks balkanizing the country. Whatever the outcome, the case reminds us that the national political struggles over immigration will play out in towns and cities far from the national eye.