There have been several rebellions in American history which were important—not for their military power—but for their politics. The most important to date was Shays Rebellion in 1786. We may now be in the early stages of another such citizen’s revolt, the Hazleton Rebellion of 2007, a rebellion that is more a matter of life and death than its predecessor over two hundred years ago.
First, a brief review of the potential power of a citizen revolt, led by no one
of consequence, yet powerful because it strikes an essential chord with a significant
portion of American society. Shays Rebellion began when Daniel Shays lost his
farm in Massachusetts because he could not pay $12 in property taxes. He could
not pay that because the nation he had served in Washington’s army had
not paid his back salary.
Shays was not alone in being cheated of his just pay for service in the American
Revolution. Hundreds of unpaid veterans joined him in demanding fair treatment.
These men were experienced soldiers who represented a serious threat to state
militias. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts and surrounding states feared for
All states understood that the rebellion could spread among unpaid veterans across
the Union. The rebellion was a major influence in the abandonment of the failed
Articles of Confederation (the first government of the United States) and in
the calling of the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, which produced a better and
more permanent government through the writing of the U.S.Constitution.
One of the first acts of the new government under the Constitution was a plan
by the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, to guarantee payment
in full of all just debts of the US government, including the unpaid veterans
of the Revolution. Though Shays Rebellion was broken up, it achieved its objectives – and
Shays was pardoned.
The Hazelton Rebellion began in 2005 with certain crimes in a small town in Pennsylvania.
There was a shooting in a playground. There was a shooting in the street. There
was a beating with baseball bats—all by illegal aliens. There were also rising
drug trading and use, HIV and tuberculosis, and other social problems, connected
to these aliens. Mayor Lou Barletta decided to see if there were any ordinances
the town could adopt to deal with these problems.
The town of Hazelton developed and passed three ordinances, which accomplished
two purposes. First, after review and revision, the ordinances required that
landlords who knowingly rented to illegal aliens could lose their licenses to
rent apartments. Second, employers who knowingly employed illegal aliens could
lose their licenses to do business in the town.
Two organizations immediately attacked in court the actions of Hazleton—the
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Puerto Rican Legal & Education
Fund. (This Rebellion will be fought out almost entirely in the courts, rather
than any physical battlefield.) As this Rebellion has spread to towns, counties,
and now to occasional state legislatures, many legislators interested in the
subject of run-away illegal immigration have backed off from possible legislation
in fear of the costs of litigation, launched by the ACLU and its allies.
Among many examples, Arcadia, Wisconsin, was considering adopting ordinances
along the lines of Hazleton in September 2006. The local ACLU threatened to file
suit. The City Attorney then recommended that the town not act to avoid the cost
Hazleton has not backed down. It has decided to stand and fight. To defend its
ordinances, Hazelton has employed the former head of immigration law as its counsel.
And with the aid of public interest law firms, it seems prepared to carry the
fight all the way to the US Supreme Court. Both because it is prepared to fight
and because it is one of the first cases filed, the Hazleton case is likely to
be the test case decided by the US Supreme Court.
As stated at the beginning of this article, the Hazleton Rebellion is more a
matter of life and death than was Shays Rebellion. A recent article (by Joseph
Farah (WorldNetDaily, 11/28/06) has aggregated the deaths caused by criminal
aliens (not all illegal) in the United States into two categories. One is deaths
caused by auto accidents, usually due to drunk driving; the other is murders,
most often due to drug deals or human smuggling. In each of these categories,
the death rate of Americans is far greater than the death rate of Americans in
the current wars overseas.
Even worse is that a majority of the deaths of Americans due to illegals could
have been prevented, as the alien had been previously deported, sometimes several
times. In fact, a recent Justice Department audit revealed that over 70% of illegal
aliens arrested had previously been arrested for five or more other crimes.
Can the Hazleton Rebellion have influences as strong as the Shays Rebellion?
Probably not. It is not likely to bring down the US government and cause a new
one to be created. On the other hand, this Rebellion can have a profound and
permanent influence on the future of the US.
If Hazleton prevails at the Supreme Court, winning a judgment that it was acting
within its legitimate powers on behalf of its citizens, there will probably be
an avalanche of such ordinances and laws passed by local and state governments
across the country. The history of actions taken but then reversed, or begun
but not carried through, in many jurisdictions shows that the threat of litigation
costs is the principal factor preventing action. Once that threat is eliminated,
many municipalities will finally feel free to act.
What are the elements of a “Hazleton” jurisdiction? How widespread
is the Rebellion, today? What are the legal arguments and their probable fate?
Before answering those questions, it should be noted that some large jurisdictions
have gone in the exact opposite direction. Los Angeles has, for instance, made
itself a “a sanctuary city” by establishing Special Order 40, which
provides that Los Angeles police officers shall not go looking for illegal immigrants
or ask the immigration status of suspects. The sanctuary jurisdictions can be
expected to stay on the opposite path from the Hazleton ones until there is a
voters’ revolt to crime and public costs due to illegals. Or, until the
sanctuary jurisdictions are overruled by the state or federal governments above
The most common provision in other Hazleton-like jurisdictions, though not in
Hazleton itself, is an English-only provision. Pahrump, Nevada, passed one of
these in November 2006. These vary widely in their terms, from those that are
little more than hortatory public statements to ones that are tightly written
and intended to be enforced. The last provision to appear in many local actions
is a bar to displaying the flags of other nations unless the US flag is also
How widespread is the Hazleton Rebellion? An Associated Press article on January
22 included an attempt to find all the jurisdictions around the country where
the issue of local reactions to illegal aliens was on the legislative table.
The AP cited “more than 100 jurisdictions” in 27 states. This is
a gross understatement of the breadth of these issues. The Puerto Rican Legal
Defense and Education Fund, which is co-leading the legal fight against these
ordinances, has nearly simultaneously listed a total of fifty-seven jurisdictions,
about half in Pennsylvania, where the issues are live.
The author of this article knows personally of efforts to introduce the alien
ordinances in hundreds of local jurisdictions in Texas and in Georgia, from inquiries
that came to him over the Internet. The ultimate conclusion is that the number
of local jurisdictions actively considering Hazleton-type ordinances is in the
low 1,000s, nationwide. And that is a fair proportion of the total of about 45,000
local governments nationwide.
The last and most complex question is, what will be the fate of all these ordinances
Legal opposition to these ordinances is more often than not led by the American
Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU makes two basic arguments in these challenges.
One is that “immigration is a national issue, not a local one, and local
governments are without authority to act on such a matter on their own.” The
other is that these ordinances are “discriminatory” because their
impact is dominantly on “brown people, who are Hispanics.” On either
basis, the ACLU argues that these ordinances are unconstitutional.
The trial courts which have first looked at these ordinances have sided with
the ACLU rather than the local governments. But trial courts do not have the
final word on a case that is certain to be reviewed by the Supreme Court.
The answers to these challenges are straightforward. The Constitution does give
the power to define and regulate immigration into the US solely to the Congress.
However, none of these local jurisdictions have sought to change in any way the
federal definition of who is, or is not, an illegal alien. All have accepted
as a given the federal definition of illegal aliens.
What the local jurisdictions have done is to make provisions suitable to them,
and applicable only within their boundaries, to promote the health, safety and
welfare of their own citizens. A simple glance at the history of “municipal
corporations,” which began during the Middle Ages (centuries before the
United States was a gleam in anyone’s eye), shows that they had these powers:
They could define who lived there, where they lived, where they worked, and what
work they did.
Every municipal corporation in the US which has “general powers” has
the same basis of legitimacy and extent of decision-making that the ancient municipal
corporations had in Europe, centuries ago. So, history teaches that Hazleton-type
ordinances, which apply solely within the boundaries of the town, are legitimate
to enact for the health, safety, and welfare of their own residents.
The discrimination charge is equally easy to dispense. Use death row as an example.
Many states have reenacted their death penalties with substantial restrictions.
For instance, they might apply it to “arson resulting in death.” There
are relatively few arsons resulting in death. African-Americans are proportionally
convicted more of such charges than any other racial group. By contrast, Asian-Americans
are proportionally less convicted of this offence. Does this mean there is racial
discrimination on this charge against the first group or in favor of the second?
No. It simply means that members of different groups demonstrate less, or greater,
tendency to commit certain offenses. Exactly the same logic applies to illegal
The United States has two long borders which are largely unprotected. To the
north is Canada, consisting mostly of Caucasians who speak English. To the south
is Mexico, consisting mostly of non-Caucasians who speak Spanish. Neither Hazleton,
nor any of the other concerned local governments, currently have a problem with
illegal Canadians who get drunk and kill local residents on the highways, or
who shoot local officials. They are having a problem with Mexicans who do these
It is the individual decision of most Canadians not to invade the US by coming
across the border illegally. It is the individual decision of millions of Mexicans
to invade the US by coming across the border illegally. There is no discrimination
in treating all illegal aliens equally within the boundaries of Hazleton, or
any other town. It is the illegal aliens, by deciding to cross the border illegally
and then to relocate to Hazleton, who bring themselves within the ambit of these
In numerous cases, the Supreme Court has held that there is no discrimination
where a law has statistically disparate impact on religious or racial groups
in American society, if that disparity is due to the combined effect of personal
decisions by individuals on how to lead their lives. Nothing more than that is
So, when the US Supreme Court makes the final decision on the constitutionality
of the Hazleton ordinances, it should uphold them. And, immediately after that
decision comes down, there should be a deluge of similar ordinances passed locally,
nationwide. And finally, there will be the educational contrast in crime rates
and public expenses between the sanctuary jurisdictions and the Hazleton ones.
The ultimate result of the Hazleton Rebellion can be, and should be, the recognition
by Congress that it must establish effective control of our borders.
Our first rebellion had the slogan, “No taxation without representation.” The
slogan for this rebellion should be, “A nation which cannot control its
borders cannot control its destiny.”
Note: The subject of illegal aliens and Hazleton-type ordinances is a fast-changing
story, on which the Internet is far more useful than the mainstream media, as
of now. Those interested in getting the most up to date information should use
search engines for the combinations of “aliens” with “drunk
driving,” or “murder,” or “health care,” etc. to
get latest possible information.
About the Author: John Armor has filed 18 briefs
in the U.S. Supreme Court, and has been of legal counsel to the American Civil
Rights Union since 1998. John_Armor@aya.yale.edu