As cold persists, options for immigrants are few

On an icy Thursday afternoon, three federal agents in a Chevy uplander brimming with boxes of documents drive down Whalley Avenue. A U-Haul truck soon pulls up to the entrance of the Community Action Agency of New Haven, and frightened employees watch as more than a dozen agents burst through the front door marked with a scrap of yellow notebook paper reading “Agency Closed.” With bulletproof vests and guns at their sides, the agents skid over black ice and up the concrete stairwell. They tear through the tired brick building, emerging with stacks of files in their arms, many marked “ENERGY.” By 4 a.m. the next morning, the agents load up and speed away with the product of their search: three computers and nearly 90 boxes of documents.

What provoked the Dec. 14 raid on this local nonprofit, one that helps fight poverty by allocating federal funding to low-income communities?

This child’s immigrant family, which receives emergency heating aid from the Livable City Initiative, struggles to brave the cold.
Catherine Cheney
This child’s immigrant family, which receives emergency heating aid from the Livable City Initiative, struggles to brave the cold.

The simple answer: heating aid. And, more specifically, a federal investigation into the organization, which allegedly provided this service to illegal immigrants.

One-and-a-half miles from the Community Action Agency, in New Haven’s Dwight neighborhood, sits a three-story apartment complex, easy to overlook in a row of similar, wood-paneled homes — save for a shattered window next to the front door. Inside, there are two apartments on each floor, including an attic apartment never intended for human occupancy. In the dingy, frigid basement, broken furnaces circulate carbon monoxide and dust, and a freestanding toilet sits atop fetid sewage.

The attic apartment houses seven people — four Mexican immigrants and their three young children who came to New Haven by bus in 2000 to join other family members. They have been cold all winter. But not once have they complained.

The controversy over heating aid for illegal immigrants is the latest front of what has been a growing battle between those who see New Haven as a sanctuary city for all its residents, regardless of their documentation status, and those who believe government resources should be reserved for the exclusive use of legal citizens. As winter in Connecticut remains bitterly cold, the demand for heating aid raises the stakes of the immigration debate.

Subzero temperatures may not discriminate. But, apparently, heating does.

The Agency

Amos Smith, who has been the CEO of the Community Action Agency of New Haven for the past 17 months, found himself caught between contradictory federal laws before the December raid. One prohibited Community Action Agencies from demanding Social Security numbers in order to determine the citizenship of applicants. The other stipulated that illegal immigrants are ineligible for energy aid.

Part of the National Association of Community Action Agencies, CAANH and its peer agencies provide statewide home heating services to low-income families, ensuring that those who use gas and electric utilities are not denied access because of failure to pay and providing vouchers for those who use oil to fuel their furnaces.

Smith explains that the city uses a system implemented in 1982, which allows heating aid applicants seven to 10 days to produce a Social Security number. In the meantime, CAANH employees use a drop-down menu to insert substitute numbers so that application materials can be processed. He claims that while applications are meant to terminate if the Social Security number is not produced, employees may approve the application at their own discretion.

But in September 2007, an anonymous whistleblower filed complaints with the state attorney general and with federal agencies claiming that CAANH was approving heating aid applications from illegal immigrants. The ensuing investigation has forced the agency to the center of increasing controversy over immigration.

“This is not something we want to have a public discussion on and this is something we think is in the past,” Smith said in a phone interview. “We followed state law.”

Racial tensions at a boil

Taking a seat in the back row of a cramped Metro bus, Annette Walton — popularly known on Yale’s campus as the Flower Lady, who panhandles on the corner of York and Elm streets — twists stray dreadlocks into her knit cap and unzips her heavy winter coat.

“How can somebody come here and not put in no time or taxes and get heating before me?” she demands, inspiring nods from the black women across the aisle.

Annette supplements her disability benefits by selling flowers, and relies on CAANH to heat her one-bedroom apartment.

“You know, immigrants been here working and getting paid under the table,” she complains to anyone who will listen as she steps off the bus at the Fitch and Whalley stop, the New Haven headquarters for Community Action.

Annette has long used a friend’s identity to register for assistance.

“My bill is so high and my credit is so bad, I don’t put it in my name,” she says. But she fears she is under a more watchful eye applying for heating aid this year, and she blames “the immigrants.”

As she approaches the door to CAANH, she spots a young Hispanic man smoking a cigarette near the entrance. She asks him for a smoke but he turns away.

“He act like he don’t know what I said!” Annette shouts, flustered. “But he said ‘What’ to me so I know he speaks English. Now he’s speakin’ Spanish, you know? Holler at me!”

Annette enters the waiting room where, throughout the day and into the evening, New Haven residents sit, waiting, hoping to receive assistance with gas, oil and electric bills to heat their homes.

Beside Annette sits Darlene, who claims she applied for aid two months ago and has yet to receive assistance — or even acknowledgment. Her two-year-old granddaughter, Aniya, plays with a new friend on the stained carpet as Darlene watches, her eyes wide with worry.

“I keep her warm with space heaters and I bundle her up,” she explains. “I use the oven, unfortunately. I turn it on and open the door. It’s very dangerous.”

Twenty minutes pass, and Annette’s name is called. She goes to the energy assistance desk only to discover that she must return for an appointment in two months, with documentation: Social Security number, date of birth, landlord’s name and address, a rent receipt, an active gas bill, a bank statement and proof of household income.

The bus ride and wait have taken the better part of a day, and for Annette, there will be no word from the agency until her next appointment. In the interim, she will keep her heat on and cross her fingers that the voucher she receives will cover the cost of the fuel.

“Right now, my s—t is still on,” she says. “I gotta keep it on.”

Enter Livable City Initiative

At 8 p.m., Rafiel Ramos, deputy director of code enforcement of the Livable City Initiative — the neighborhood and housing development office unique to New Haven — begins his rounds at the Dwight neighborhood apartment complex that the Mexican family of seven calls home. After an already exhausting 12-hour workday, he inspects the most urgent code violations, which were discovered by housing inspectors.

Ramos does not earn overtime pay for the extra hours he works, but winter does not wait, he says, and as the year grows colder, “no heat” complaints skyrocket.

In the basement, Tony and Rick, who work with Ramos at the Livable City Initiative, move cautiously from one room to the next. Rick holds a tool near broken wires to detect voltage, and at every turn it buzzes and lights up, warning of potential electrocution at each cluster of tangled wires. Rick reminds everyone to keep clear of the dangling cords.

Tony adds, “I’d recommend you wash your shoes or throw them away. You’re walking on human feces.”

After snapping pictures of the basement, Ramos has had enough. “Okay, let’s get out of here. This smell is making me puke.”

The smell continues up the rickety staircase to the door of the apartment.

Ramos knocks. No answer, but 10 minutes later, a child rustles inside. He knocks again, more insistently.

“¿Quién es?” — Who is it? — a woman asks, pressed against the door. Ramos identifies himself and says he is there to help.

The woman peers through a crack in the door and, after giving her visitors a skeptical lookover, steps aside. In the small two-room apartment, her children huddle on the bare couch, bundled in layers covering everything but their cold, pink cheeks.

Ramos says immigrants stay silent, despite the freezing temperatures, either because they are too fearful or uninformed to contact LCI in the first place, or because they cannot afford to sustain themselves after the emergency aid wears off.

And many landlords take advantage of this silence by providing sub-standard services, even when these tenants are paying their rent, he says.

“My experience is that the immigrant population always pays their rent, always and on time, unlike some citizens,” Ramos says. “Meanwhile, everyone abuses them, loading them in these apartments like sardines, 13 to an apartment. Landlords benefit from that because they can get more money for a rickety apartment with roaches and rats.”

LCI employees were doing a routine license inspection when they discovered this family’s living condition — and they directed the information to Ramos. Immediately.

Ramos asks the oldest of the three girls what her name is — “Hola niña. ¿Cómo te llamas?” — as she shows the new visitors her somersaults. Teresa Perez, the mother of the three young girls, and her sister-in-law, Josefina Martinez, pay rent for their apartment every month, but they say the landlord does not provide the services promised to them.

Both women’s names have been changed to protect their privacy.

After further inspections, Ramos concludes that the tenants are in good standing. They paid their rent and had oil in the basement, but the landlord failed to maintain functioning furnaces, forcing the family to turn to dangerous habits.

“When folks are cold, they’ll turn their gas stoves on, which is an issue because it can fill your home with carbon monoxide or deplete the oxygen in the environment.”

He explains that the Perez and Martinez families were using a space heater, which is “not designed to be full-time heating systems because they can cause fires, especially when children play with blankets and get up next to them.”

Ramos arranges for both families to move into a nearby motel for two nights while repairs are made in the basement. He provides them with a 10-day emergency supply of 50 gallons of heating oil. But when that supply runs out, they will need to purchase their own. LCI’s aid, after all, is provided only short-term, when tenants are in danger.

After leaving the apartment, Ramos explains why he works such thankless hours.

“The reward for me is I can help people. I can impact s—t. I can make s—t happen, and at the end of the day I feel good,” he says. “New Haven is great for this. New Haven doesn’t want anyone to be cold.”

The community speaks

Cassandra Floyd, CAANH Director of Energy, concedes that the agency used placeholder numbers in order to maintain data on clients without documentation. But with the recent uproar over illegal immigrants receiving heating aid, state officials have called for new procedures to ensure applicants who cannot produce a Social Security number are not entered into the system.

“Now, we cannot process any applications that don’t have Social Security numbers. We just put them to the side,” Floyd explains.

The agency finds itself in a tough position.

“Clients call saying they don’t want to freeze, but we’re limited in helping them,” she says. Leaning on the side of her cluttered desk, Floyd sighs as she explains that, in her opinion, low-cost fuel should go to anyone who needs it, regardless of his or her citizenship or lack thereof.

Meanwhile, in the waiting area just outside her office, illegal immigrants sit among registered citizens on metal folding chairs, hoping that they can receive aid, as in years past.

Yvonne Jones, a young black woman, exits the Community Action building after her appointment and lights a cigarette. Walking past graffitied walls toward her West Haven home, she explains that having a baby changes her perspective on the heating aid issue. “I just want my kid to have a secure future but people come in illegally and get all these opportunities,” she says. “They coming up, the immigrants is coming up. They had Hondas and now they have SUVs, and here I am walking.”

Jones adds, “It’s not right because us citizens should have first priority but the immigrants get priority and that leaves us in a rut.”

Fatima Rojas, an activist for the immigrants rights group Unidad Latina en Acción, emphasizes the need for cooperation between the black community and the immigrant community in New Haven. “We are not talking about animals. We are talking about human beings,” Rojas explains. “There are families with babies and they are not able to have heating aid so they are worried.”

Rojas is working to build a more amicable relationship between the low-income black and Hispanic immigrant communities. “We are holding meetings with the African-American community and inviting African-Americans to meetings to find out what is going on, to learn about each other. All these issues are affecting human rights. Whether undocumented or documented, immigrants or not, we are all human.”

Alan Felder, a black plumber and founder of “Man-Up,” an organization that protests government-related contracts going to illegal immigrants, understands that no one “wants to see anybody freeze.” But on the other hand, he explains, “We have individuals who do not belong in this country.”

When asked for his opinion on arguments paralleling the civil rights movement and the plight of illegal immigrants, he refuses to acknowledge the similarity.

Felder lowers his voice, his tone irate. “No one is forced to go across the border into America. But we were forced across the whole ocean. You can’t compare that. That’s an insult.” Felder says he does not want cooperation between black people and illegal immigrants, claiming he will avoid it at all costs.

Anti-immigrant groups echo sentiments that those who reside here illegally have no right to basic social services. Chris Powell, managing editor of the Connecticut tabloid newspaper the Journal Inquirer, argues that illegal immigrants should return to their home countries if the cold becomes unbearable.

“I wouldn’t say being freezing is life-threatening in this case, because anyone illegally in the country can always present himself to law enforcement authorities and say, ‘Hey, I need a ride home,’ back to their countries.”

Bill Farrel, coordinator of the anti-immigrant group Southern Connecticut Citizens for Immigration Reform, agrees. “You know, Mexico is pretty warm,” he says, when asked what immigrants should do to escape the cold.

Farrel explains, “It’s not a human right to commit a crime and ask us to reward you with benefits. I mean, if someone broke into your house and you happen to catch him there, and if that guy is eating stuff out of your refrigerator and he says, ‘But hey, I cleaned the toilet. I want to stay here and you need to warm me up,’ I would say, ‘I don’t care. Get the hell out of my house!’ ”

Dustin Gold — chief strategist of the Community Watchdog Project, a group that has been vigilant in its quest to abolish illegal immigration in Connecticut — agrees. Gold aided the whistleblower from Community Action, taking the leaked information to any media outlets that would listen.

Gold realizes that his initiatives will leave immigrants cold this winter, but does he feel remorse?

“No,” he responds nonchalantly. In fact, Gold argues that everyone at CAANH who granted heating aid to illegal immigrants should go to prison.

As long as we get it first

After her appointment, Annette waits at the bus stop outside the Community Action Agency. The bus will return her to the street corner where she sells flowers and ask for spare change. She kills time by talking with a young black mother — who asked to remain anonymous — as she leans against the smeared glass and rubs her hands together, trying to keep warm. The two women talk without restraint about their frustrations with Community Action.

“When I was callin’ them earlier today, they was like, ‘Your waiting time is 60 minutes,’” the mother chuckles, attempting to sound like the operator. “So I just took a break from work and came down here!”

When asked whether she thinks everyone should be given an equal right to heating aid, the young woman’s first instinct is to say, “Yes.”

Then, Annette jumps in. “How old your baby?” Annette asks. One year old, the woman answers.

“And you wouldn’t even care if the illegal immigrants took your heat? When you have a baby?” Annette waits for what she thinks to be the only suitable answer.

“As long as we got it first!” the young woman shouts, putting her hand on her hip and raising her voice for the first time. Annette throws her head back with a smile. “That’s what I’m talking about. Holler at me!”

Meanwhile, Teresa Perez and Josefina Martinez have run out of emergency aid and, like the other immigrants in the apartment complex, resort to lining their windows with plastic. Both women are frustrated with the arguments that illegal immigrants take jobs away from American citizens.

“We’re not robbing anyone,” Martinez says. “The thing is that black people don’t do the work we do. They won’t clean toilets, and we will, for necessity, to support our family in Mexico, and our children.”

Last year, the Perez and Martinez families received heating assistance through CAANH, but this year, they will likely have to find another way to keep warm.

“Last year, I told Community Action that my daughters had Social Security numbers and they said no problem. They gave me an appointment immediately,” Perez explained, in Spanish. “This time, when I walked in, the receptionist asked why I came there, and I said it was for oil.”

“She didn’t ask me if I had kids. She just asked for my name and number and said she would call me for an appointment. They haven’t called yet,” she continues, days after her original visit.

“But,” Perez says, “I have hope. There is always tomorrow.”

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