By Michael Smerconish
Philadelphia Daily News
CALL them Democratic No Fly Zones: Geno's Steaks and Hazleton, Pa.
Two locations that could unlock a critical segment of the electorate for either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, but where neither is willing to go.
Obama and Clinton have been all over the state. Obama bowled in Altoona. Hillary walked in a St. Patrick's Day parade in Scranton. Obama sampled Wilbur Chocolates in Lititz. Hillary rallied near an old steel mill in Bucks County.
But there are two places that neither will visit: Geno's and Hazleton. Why? Because both have been branded with bright- red scarlet letters. Both are politically incorrect because of their role in the battle over illegal immigration.
Geno's used to be a "must" for presidential candidates making their rounds in Philadelphia. Bill Clinton is among the many would-be commanders in chief who have stopped there to sample a "wiz wid."
But no more. Ever since proprietor Joe Vento put a sign in his window requesting that patrons please speak English, he's been persona non grata to the candidates. Rudy Giuliani is the only one to visit there this election cycle.
Hazleton has seen its stock plummet in the same way - despite its location in the hotly contested coal region in the northeastern part of the state.
Mayor Lou Barletta had the audacity to punish employers who hire illegals and the landlords who rent to them. His effort resulted in a court battle now before the a U.S. court of appeals.
Barletta, a candidate for Congress, has even gone so far as to invite the presidential contenders to tour Hazleton, see the problems he's dealing with and discuss the immigration issue.
Nobody accepted, of course.
"I believe they're purposely avoiding coming to Hazleton," Barletta told me. "I think this is a very clear indication of how our next president will deal with illegal immigration. Or should I say will not deal with illegal immigration?
"Everybody knows Hazleton. They know we are at the front line of this issue. What better forum than to come here and tell this country how they feel about illegal immigration and how they will deal with it?"
The slight is intensified by the Democratic candidates' willingness to gamely play along with the rest of the state. All that travel, and not one candidate can find the time for a cheesesteak in South Philly or some pierogies in Hazleton.
I hope it's not a sign of how they'll handle this issue from the White House.
Look, I understand that they might not agree with the views of Vento or Barletta. Obama has supported giving driver's licenses to illegals, and Hillary seemed to misremember her position on that issue during a debate in Philadelphia last year.
Nonetheless, illegal immigration is important to voters across the country, and I believe it could be key to a victory in Pennsylvania.
Neil Oxman is one of the most knowledgeable Democratic strategists in the state. He explained that the battle between Obama and Clinton is among blue-collar white men. Saying something about illegal immigration while eating at Geno's or touring Hazleton could be a way to reach them, and all other Pennsylvanians. Whoever treats this like the legitimate issue it is will be rewarded.
After all, if figures recently released by the Pew Research Center are any indication, open borders will be devastating for the country in the long term. In February, Pew released a study that projected U.S. population will hit 438 million in 2050 - up from 296 million in 2005 - 82 percent of which will be the result of immigrants arriving here between 2005 and 2050.
Here's what else we know: In its coverage of the Pew results, the New York Times reported that illegal immigrants account for 30 percent of foreign-born people living in the United States. How can our country's hospitals, schools, prisons and roads continue to shoulder this burden?
Securing the border and dealing rationally with the illegals already here would seem like a logical place to start heading off an eventual breakdown of America's infrastructure - and budget. It's wrong - and counterproductive - to immediately slap the xenophobe label on anybody acting out of concern for the country's infrastructure and pocketbook.
Yet the individuals who want to assume a leadership role in solving this problem refuse to visit two places that have come to symbolize the debate.
That's not the kind of leadership Americans - especially those among us who came here legally - want or deserve.
I've lived around Philly my whole life, but I understand the reality: Not everybody likes Cheez Whiz. I'm just hoping somebody proves he has the stomach to secure the border. *