Two weeks before New Haven Solidarity Week, when several campus groups will encourage Yalies to sign up for the city’s new municipal identity card, members of the Yale Political Union debated Tuesday night whether cities should provide services to illegal immigrants at all.
Kica Matos, the creator of the “Elm City ID” program, keynoted the debate — “Resolved: Provide City Services to Undocumented Immigrants” — by defending her work over the past year as imperative for the public safety of New Haven residents. Students who spoke in the negative found common ground with Matos in the belief that immigrants have important contributions to make to American society, but they said American identity should not be predicated on lawbreaking.
New Haven Mayor John DeStefano was originally scheduled to appear at the debate and argue in favor of the resolution, but cancelled because he said he was sick.
The municipal ID program was first proposed in early 2007 and approved by the Board of Aldermen on June 6.
While Matos wove anecdotes about horrific crimes committed by locals against immigrants together with a history of the city’s changing racial demographics, speakers in the negative focused on the larger problem of “incentivizing” illegal immigration, arguing that cities should not be interfering with federal immigration policy by rewarding illegal aliens.
In her speech, Matos said New Haven had no choice but to act in the absence of any meaningful federal legislation dealing with the large number of undocumented immigrants. With undocumented immigrants accounting for about 10 percent of the city’s population, she said they have increasingly become targets for unscrupulous employers and criminals who prey on “walking ATMs” — a label given to immigrants coming back from picking up Thursday pay checks.
One particularly infamous landlord refused to rent to anyone who was not an undocumented immigrant, she said. One night last winter, a family fell behind on their rent, and instead of serving an eviction notice, the landlord cut off all the family’s utilities.
“There was no electricity, no heat and 11 people plus an infant child living in a one-room apartment,” Matos said. “She was charging per tenant — every tenant was charged $400.”
Following the implementation of six other initiatives by New Haven officials — including prohibiting police from inquiring about residents’ immigration status — the city created the municipal ID card to function as a library card and a debit card, as well as to provide access to various city locations, such as the municipal golf course, Matos said.
She said one of the city’s goals was to facilitate immigrants’ ability to open bank accounts so they would no longer be targets of thieves looking for cash, and to give them the confidence to report crimes to the police. But the card was ultimately designed to make immigrants feel like part of a community, Matos said.
Tory Party member Peter Johnston ’09 asked Matos whether the proposal should be allowed to contradict federal policy simply because it was beneficial to the city. But Matos said nothing in the proposal was at odds with federal law — the federal government’s raids of immigrant communities and the arrests of 32 immigrants two days after the implementation of the program demonstrate that if New Haven’s new policy were illegal, she said, federal officials would bar no holds in taking legal action against the city.
After referencing Abraham Lincoln’s remark that a great nation cannot be destroyed from without, but only from within, Adam Hirst ’10, the first speaker in the negative, said that what defines the country’s moral fabric is its reliance on laws.
“Citizens must protect what makes America, America,” he said.
If cities could pursue their own policies with contempt for national authority, Hirst said, the federal government would be dissuaded from acting. He said his opposition did not arise from a belief that immigrants do not help support the country.
“This isn’t an issue of productivity,” he said. “We need institutions in place to preserve our sovereignty.”
Other speakers in the affirmative argued on a less pragmatic and more visceral level for the need to support immigrants, regardless of their legal status.
Independent Party member Alex Soble ’09 said the issue is simply one of justice. If the country is going to exploit immigrants for their labor, it should at least keep them from being robbed and victimized, he said.
“If you eat fruit someone picked in California, probably under a blazing sun, you have a connection and an obligation to them,” he said.
Tory Party member Jennifer Bolton ’08 told her fellow Tories that she could not understand why they were on the negative side of the resolution. She said the situation in New Haven is a case of local governments, faith-based organizations and private individuals standing up against an encroaching federal government — the very definition of conservatism.
New Haven Solidarity Week, which begins Nov. 5, is sponsored by a coalition of student organizations organized by Dwight Hall to assist other Yale students in signing up for the municipal identification card.
After the resolution passed, Liberal Party chairman Noah Kazis ’09 proposed that the YPU co-sponsor New Haven Solidarity Week. The motion failed after 45 minutes of debate.