Activists lobby for immigrants

John Jaigo Lugo, organizer of immigrant rights group Unidad Latina en Accion, has to deal with an emergency — an undocumented immigrant in Winchester, Conn., was pulled over for driving without a seat belt, and the police, when they found he had no license, called immigration enforcement.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, is now trying to deport him.

While Congress last Friday passed a bill approving the construction of a wall along the Mexican border, local immigrant activists like Lugo are organizing statewide to address the more mundane struggles of undocumented immigrants in Connecticut — raids by ICE, abusive landlords, unsafe work conditions, and petty crime that they are afraid to report to police. Mayors, the activists say, have a surprising amount of power over the welfare of immigrants in their towns, independent of inaction on the federal level.

“Mayors around the country are changing their own laws in their cities,” said Hartford-based activist Marela Zacarias. “They’re criminalizing immigrants. Police are calling Immigration on immigrants all the time.”

But the severity of the challenges facing immigrants vary from city to city, even within a state as small as Connecticut, and Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s New Haven has emerged as a city with one of the better, though not quite perfect, reputations for defending immigrant rights. Immigrant rights groups, such as Fair Haven-based Junta for Progressive Action, are working with the city’s police department to establish a policy that would forbid police from asking about the legal status of immigrants who are crime victims or turning over any such information to federal immigration authorities. And City Hall has spent the past year slowly developing a plan to provide all New Haven residents with city ID cards, which would allow immigrants to open bank accounts and avoid carrying the large amounts of cash that often make them targets of violent crime.

Implementing any new program takes time, and with DeStefano running for governor as the Democratic nominee against popular Republican incumbent Gov. M. Jodi Rell, progress on those plans has been slow. But even as some activists question the delays in New Haven, they are uniting to turn their focus statewide, to cities with more actively anti-immigrant policies.

Ningun ser Humano es Ilegal

Though a pro-immigrant rally on Sunday in Hartford came just two days after Congress approved of the construction of a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexican border, marchers were angrier about Danbury, Conn., than Washington, D.C.

Eleven illegal immigrants working as day laborers were arrested in Danbury two weeks ago, after immigration enforcement officers duped the workers, who were from Ecuador, into thinking they were being hired for the day. They now face the possibility of deportation, according to local news accounts.

The marchers in Hartford were part of a loose statewide coalition of activists from New Haven, Hartford and Danbury, as well as a members of the mostly immigrant union Justice for Janitors SEIU 32BJ, and members of antiwar groups, Zacarias said.

That coalition, which has no official name, grew out of the aftermath of the rallies in May against federal legislation that would have criminalized immigrants, said Kica Matos, executive director of Junta. A steering committee of activists met and, after a well-attended meeting in July, decided to work together to develop a joint plan of action, she said.

“We’ve felt a need to also be proactive in Connecticut and start looking at what we can be doing to push forward progressive action,” Matos said. “Part of the idea behind really looking at engaging in the municipal, state and federal level in the area of immigration is that their lives are most immediately impacted by the municipality they live in. If you’re an immigrant in Danbury, you have to be afraid that the law enforcement is going to come down on you at any time and any place.”

Joyce Hamilton Henry, executive director of Democracy Works, an advocacy group that tries to engage disenfranchised communities, said state legislatures could take meaningful actions to improve immigrants’ lives. For example, said Hamilton Henry, who emigrated from Jamaica as a child, they could develop statewide ID cards, such as the one New Haven is working on, that would allow immigrants to open bank accounts, or they could pass legislation that would let children of illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition at Connecticut public colleges and universities.

Beyond that, though, said Adriana Garcia ’08, moderator for MEChA, a Mexican-American Yale student association, by organizing rallies as a state, immigrant rights’ activists can try to maintain the momentum that began in the spring and remind legislators of their immigrant constituents. MEChA, which is working with the state coalition through Unidad Latina en Accion, the New Haven group, participated in the Hartford rally, and is trying to reach out and involve more Yale students, particularly through the Law School.

“We worry that this drive and motivation would die out if no one started it up again,” she said. “Part of the goal was to make this a bigger effort.”

Think globally, act locally

Almost exactly a year ago, DeStefano announced a plan to provide municipal identification cards to immigrants — documented or not — that they could use as proof of identity to open bank accounts or sign legal documents. But the day after the announcement, which surprised and outraged many across the state, the mayor retracted the plan. Then, his office announced that City Hall was indeed committed to the plan, but that it was still in the preliminary stages.

The plan to provide ID cards is still being developed, as are plans, also announced last year, to develop an order for the New Haven Police Department that would forbid officers from asking individuals about their immigration status, according to officials in City Hall who have been working on the proposals. The police policy is already practiced, for the most part, by officers, said John Buturla, the city’s chief administrative officer, and the challenge now is just to clarify it and put it in writing.

In part because of those two plans, immigrant activists say New Haven is one of the municipalities that is most friendly towards immigrants, to the extent that some have argued that programs such as the ID cards could encourage more illegal immigration into New Haven. Matos said New Haven, which had a history of welcoming immigrants during its heyday as a manufacturing center, is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Danbury: While one city is highly organized against immigrants, she said, the other is organized in favor of them. She said Junta is also working on a program with Southern Bank, located just down the street from the organization’s Fair Haven headquarters, on a program to offer financial literacy education to immigrants and help them open accounts.

“Part of what we want to do is to see if we can really look to create similar initiatives in different municipalities so immigrants have the same access to services and feel that they have as much right to avail themselves of city services as other people,” she said.

But while many immigrant activists agree that New Haven is one of the most progressive cities in the state, some also question why progress on the two proposals has been slow. The general order, Lugo said, is progressing faster than the ID program, in part because of an incident in June when a police officer whom Unidad had called in to help an immigrant family confront an abusive landlord instead began asking the immigrants about their status. After that incident, Lugo said City Hall and the police were under more pressure from activists, including Junta, to put the policy into writing.

Buturla said the city is still trying to identify a source of funding for the cards, which would be available to anyone who could prove residency in New Haven, as well as trying to determine exactly what the cards could be used for. He said the city hopes the cards, in addition to being a photo ID, could have some monetary value and be used to pay library fines or parking meters.

“We’re not at a point that we’ve identified a funding source or equipment or materials,” he said. “It’ll be some time before we get to that point.”

Some of the delays have come from staffing changes in City Hall. DeStefano policy analyst Kate McAdams worked on the project until she left New Haven three weeks ago; since then, the mayor’s legislative assistant, Paul Nunez, picked up where McAdams left off, though Buturla said no meetings have yet been held on the subject. Nunez said he is planning to meet with the city’s new budget director at the end of this week to discuss funding options, and he hopes that the program will be in place by January.

Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez, chairman of the Board of Aldermen’s Black and Hispanic Caucus, said City Hall has not discussed the cards with the board or the caucus, and Perez said he could not judge how effective the IDs could be without hearing more details.

Nunez said some of the delays in developing the program, besides those due to his own learning curve, have been because the program is so innovative, and the city has had to find a vendor willing and able to develop the necessary technology. Once the source of funding is determined, Nunez said the city will also have to develop a plan for distributing the cards, whether through City Hall or at branch libraries around town.

Working out the details of the general order for police has also proved challenging, Buturla said, though he and others said they expect the order will be announced within a few weeks. Part of the delay, he said, is because there is not yet a consensus about what the order’s scope should be, though he said city officials agree that undocumented immigrants should be unafraid to report crime.

“We are actively engaged in looking at a general order from the chief of police regarding disclosure of status information,” Buturla said. “That would include immigration status or confidential information involving individuals’ sexual orientation, victim status, status as a victim of a sexual assault.”

The order would be issued by the chief of police to all the officers. Chief Franciso Ortiz was unavailable for comment, but NHPD spokeswoman Bonnie Winchester confirmed that Ortiz is working on the proposal.

Still, Lugo said, the delays have proved frustrating, though he said they were most likely an unintentional result of the mayor’s busy schedule.

“I don’t think they are moving fast enough, just because they are involved in so many politics, and the mayor is running for governor,” he said. “He’s not paying so much attention.”

Lugo said Unidad’s focus now, as part of the state coalition, is to try organizing for immigrant rights in cities such as Middletown and Bridgeport, where rights for immigrants are not yet part of the municipal debate.

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