In Pennsylvania swing town, immigration is all the talk for voters

Battleground: Pennsylvania

HAZLETON, Pa. — For the past decade, this struggling city has been the epicenter for an explosive national debate over immigration. On Tuesday, the issue naturally was front and center.

Once a bustling and tight-knit community where folks kept their doors unlocked and their mouths shut, Hazleton is a changed town. Since the early 1990s, much has happened: An influx of Latinos, here both legally and illegally, has altered the landscape permanently.

You've heard of Hazleton lately in a positive sense — it's the hometown of world champion Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who never misses an opportunity to name-check his birthplace in national interviews.

Hazleton is now a swing city in what has suddenly become a swing state, with 20 electoral votes. Pennsylvania, which hadn't gone Republican in a presidential race since 1988, provided the decisive victory that put Donald Trump over the top.

Luzerne County is traditionally Democratic, but Trump has drawn massive crowds here, and his signs dot lawns throughout the area.

Crime in the eastern Pennsylvania city now is now a daily fact of life. Neighbors no longer know each others' names. A sense of resentment, fear and anger pervades.

Amid it all is the election. Hazleton has been profiled by numerous national media organizations (including CNBC.com) during the campaign.

Voters here flocked to the polls on Tuesday, each looking to make their own little statement about how they see the future of their town, and their country. The lines at the polls stretched around blocks, the different races and ethnic groups standing in single file waiting to exercise their right.

'With crime, there is no race'

Esther Medina is Puerto Rican by descent but a Hazletonian for nine years. She's concerned about the way things are and is contemplating leaving.

"The crime rate has increased dramatically. It's not safe to walk around anymore," said Medina, a 33-year-old social worker who was staffing the polls Tuesday for the local state representative, Republican Tarah Toohil.

Crime in general, and not immigration in particular, is one of the issues that concerns her most. The other is the general divisiveness in her town.

"I'm very frustrated," she said. "With crime, there is no race."

As a political question, though, things are a little more complicated. Medina is supporting Toohil, a two-term legislator — "she works with the people, she works for the people" — but is less certain about the rest of the GOP ticket.

That, of course, means Trump at the top, and, locally, for Republican U.S. Rep. Louis Barletta, a tea party darling who 10 years ago as mayor famously pushed through an ordinance that punished landlords and business owners who did business with undocumented immigrants. The law ultimately was tossed out by the courts, but it helped propel Barletta to Congress.

Barletta was running against a former mayor who himself had talked tough against illegal immigration.

"I'd rather not say," Medina said when asked if she was supporting Trump. "I have friends who are 100 percent for him, I have friends who are 100 percent against him."

Nearby, a woman hissed, "he's the devil," when the topic of Trump arose.

Looking for a wall, hoping for unity

A Barletta volunteer at the same city hall polling location where Medina worked wore the congressman's button but was ambivalent about Trump.

"I'll see how I feel at the end of the day," said the volunteer, who gave his name as John and said he had not voted yet and wasn't sure which way he was leaning for president.

Bob Devigili, a 57-year-old sales consultant, was considerably more certain, and sees the immigration issue as crucial for the city.

"We don't mind legals who work. It's the illegals we don't want," he said. "The wall can't be big enough," Devigili added, referencing the wall on the Mexican border that Trump has vowed to build.

As Devigili spoke to a reporter, Albina "Beanie" Maddon, Joe's mother, strolled past on her way to the polling place at Most Precious Blood church, just a few blocks away from the family's deli, the Third Base Luncheonette.

"We're very proud of him. He did a good job," she said of her son with a smile.

Pride is a common emotion in Hazleton, even though many of its residents exude low morale about the current state of affairs.

Not everyone, though, is so downbeat.

"I think we still have a great country," said Frank Skokoski, 58, a lawyer from West Hazleton, the next town over, mocking Trump's pledge to "make America great again." "That's what offends me more than anything else — these constant putdowns of our country."

Skokoski is a traveler, having just returned from a tour of Africa. He hikes around the area daily and meets foreigners who believe the U.S. is a wonderful country. He is hometown proud — a lifelong resident who vows never to leave.

"I walk the streets. It's not as bad as they say," Skokoski said while chatting in his office. "We need to come together."