Candidates to push for immigrant rights

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Photo by Monica Disare.

In New Haven, undocumented immigrants can get an ID card and report crimes without fear of deportation. Soon, they will be able to obtain a driver’s license. New Haven has been on the forefront of immigration reform nationally and whoever becomes the next mayor will have the opportunity to either continue this legacy or stunt it.

“In a way, all aspects of New Haven were shaped by different kinds of migration histories,” said Alicia Camacho, the former Director of Undergraduate Studies of Yale’s Ethnicity, Race and Migration Department and co-chair of Junta for Progressive Action, one of New Haven’s many immigrant advocacy groups.

The city’s black population, she said, is a living testament to the Great Migration, representing African Americans’ pursuit of economic opportunities in industrial Northern cities. The Latin American immigrants that make up some of Elm City’s most prominent neighborhoods have had a presence for much longer than many remember, with large waves of Puerto Ricans arriving to fuel the post-World War II economic boom. Similarly, Irish, Italian and other European immigrants have historically been central to the culture and work force of New Haven.

Activists acknowledge that the next mayor will have to work hard to fill Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s shoes in terms of fighting for progressive immigration policy. DeStefano worked with immigrant communities and local leaders to push forward such initiatives as the Elm City ID program, which provides official identification for undocumented residents, and General Order 06-2, which mandates that New Haven police not report the immigration status of residents to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to reduce the number of deportations.

“He developed great partnerships with local and national leadership to innovate programs and policies that allow the integration of immigrants and defend them from what he saw as flawed federal policies,” Camacho said. “But in this he was listening closely to his constituency.”

Both mayoral hopefuls, Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 and Toni Harp ARC ’78, have composed platforms that address the challenges facing New Haven’s undocumented residents.

Elicker said he would not be afraid to continue to push for innovative ways to support New Haven’s immigrant residents, with or without papers.

“I’m a practical person and an ethical person, so I’m going to make sure that if the federal government can’t get its act together for immigration policy, we make sure our many undocumented residents are safe and have opportunities,” he said.

In the extensive list of position statements on his website, Elicker proposes cracking down on wage theft, encouraging positive relations between immigrants and law enforcement and helping undocumented immigrants get driver’s licenses.

Rival candidate Harp, who led Elicker in the primary, referenced her track record of supporting immigrant rights in the state legislature. She co-sponsored a bill earlier this year that allows undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses in the state, in order to improve road safety and increase the number of insured drivers. She also voted and advocated for the Connecticut DREAM Act in 2011, which allows undocumented immigrant students to pay in-state tuition for public colleges.

She said minimizing wage theft and maintaining the Elm City ID program would be her goals to improve immigrants’ rights in New Haven.

Junta, like the other immigrant advocacy organizations interviewed, does not endorse either candidate, but rather plans to work closely with the victor to support initiatives that would improve the lives of immigrants in the city.

“We’re seeing a desire on the part of all candidates to be advocates for immigrant rights,” Camacho said.

DOCUMENTING IMMIGRANTS, DOCUMENTING RESIDENTS

New Haven broke new ground in the national immigration reform movement by initiating the Elm City ID program, which issues residents, regardless of immigration status, official identification cards that connect undocumented immigrants to certain city services.

“I think the card created a sense of belonging and, to a certain extent, it diminished fear within our community,” said Ana Maria Rivera, Junta’s legal and policy analyst.

The ID card, which both Harp and Elicker publicly support, allows immigrants without other forms of identification to open accounts at certain banks and gives them access to libraries and public pools.

When the ID program debuted in 2007, Mayor DeStefano told the New York Times: “We’re just dealing with our reality, which is that a significant portion of our population is undocumented, and they are a significant part of our work force. This is just a way to serve the people of New Haven and help many of them negotiate daily life.”

Elicker said the Elm City ID program, which has been hugely successful so far, should be issued to all residents, including public school and college students. He said it could be used as a bus pass, library card and debit card. The card could also help the city collect metrics on what services are being used more than others, generating data that could inform improvements to services.

“It shouldn’t just be useful to undocumented immigrants,” he said.

But Lugo said that there are first certain specific improvements the city could make to the card that would address serious challenges undocumented immigrants in particular face. He said that if more banks allowed residents to use it as a debit card, fewer immigrants would have to carry and handle large amounts of cash, something that makes them targets for theft.

He also said that he wants to eventually see municipal voting rights extended to undocumented immigrants, who comprise a large portion of the city’s tax base. He pointed to such a law in place in Takoma Park, Md. that allows for this.

On the state level, legislators led by Harp passed a bill in May that allows undocumented immigrants to go through the process of getting a driver’s license starting in 2015, decreasing uninsured and unlicensed drivers and giving many immigrants a safe means to get to work.

Though Harp has a strong track record supporting immigration reform at the state level, she did not respond to repeated requests for comment about how she would expand documentation for workers in New Haven.

Rivera said this bill was a “major victory” for immigrants in the state, and that it demonstrates the state’s commitment to immigration reform.

“I’m glad to see that these progressive laws are a growing trend in our nation and proud that Connecticut is a leader on this issue,” Rivera said.

Elicker said that if elected he would work at the city level to encourage undocumented drivers to go through the process of obtaining a driver’s license.

TRUST IN THE ELM CITY

In the New Haven Police Department’s endorsement of the TRUST Act, Lieutenant Holly Wsilewski wrote that General Order 06-2, which mandated that New Haven police not ask or report the immigration status of people reporting crimes or involved in lesser crimes, helped to bring people “out of the shadows.”

Elicker said what he hears consistently from immigrants he speaks to is that their goals for improving the city, ranging from increased public safety to effective law enforcement, are not much different from those of non-immigrants.

But for many immigrants, activists said concerns about being reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement prevented them from calling police to report crimes, contributing to higher crime rates in immigrant communities.

To counteract this, members of the Connecticut state legislature, including Harp, unanimously passed a law in May called the TRUST Act, which limits the situations in which police can turn people over to ICE. Connecticut was the first state to pass a statewide law that limits the impact of the federal Secure Communities program, which Rivera called a “deportation machine.”

But the TRUST Act is only as effective as its implementation at the municipal level, which will hinge on the future mayor’s dedication, said Evelyn Nunez, the political action chair of MEChA, a Latino activist group on campus.

“The passing of this act was a huge victory, but it will only have a significant impact on deportation rates if there is proper communication with local police enforcement,” she said.

Elicker said that he would throw his full force behind this and other efforts to improve relations between law enforcement and immigrant communities, including General Order 06-2.

Despite advances in fostering relations between immigrant communities and law enforcement on both the city and state levels, Lugo said there are still some steps the mayor could take to improve public safety in neighborhoods where many residents do not speak English. For instance, he said that the city and police department should hire bilingual receptionists.

“The city should improve safety of the immigrant communities that are being plagued by crime on the streets,” said John Jairo Lugo, a ULA activist. “When people call the police, no one answers in Spanish. That’s a big issue for our community.”

WAGE WAR 

Immigrant rights have historically been tied to the labor struggle in New Haven, Camacho said. In recent years, undocumented immigrants have been disproportionately affected by wage theft. In recent decades, wage theft has been a common practice of businesses in the city, seriously impacting undocumentes workers, activists said.

Both candidates expressed their support for the fight for fair wages in the city, which activists said is among the most pressing crises for immigrants at the moment.

“Wage theft is still an enormous problem that plagues this city and particularly the immigrant population,” Rivera said. “I would encourage voters to find out what the candidates plans are for enforcing criminal wage laws.”

This past year, the issue has been brought to light close to Yale by the santions Gourmet Heaven is facing from the Department of Labor for paying some undocumented workers under minimum wage and not paying overtime.

ULA and MEChA lead a boycott and weekly picket of the business to raise awareness and punish the owners of Gourmet Heaven. Both organizations call for City Hall to punish wage theft beyond state sanctions, which they consider too diminutive to seriously discourage the practice.

“I think it is imperative the mayor’s office commit to passing some sort of ordinance at the city level that will help combat wage theft,” Nunez said. “Wage theft has become a common practice in New Haven, and I think that in order to change that practice we need to pass stricter measures that will make employers think harder about the ramifications of stealing wages.”

Elicker’s plan for helping immigrant workers deal with wage theft is to provide assistance at City Hall for them in filling out and faxing the necessary forms.

Elicker said that it is difficult for many undocumented immigrants to navigate the Department of Labor complaint process for wage theft, and that the city can play a role in assisting them when it comes to submitting the required forms anonymously.

On his website, he also proposed developing a simple online form for submitting wage theft complaints to the city, which could provide counseling on how to move forward with the issue.

Harp acknowledges the importance of minimizing wage theft, but did not outline possible measures to do this.

“They pay taxes in our community and they raise our children in our community,” she said.

Undocumented workers in cities and farms nationwide are on the front lines of the national battle over immigration reform, but as leaders in New Haven and Connecticut at large have argued, they are entitled to safety, integration and respect. On Nov. 5 the next mayor will be faced with the option to make this assertion a priority or put it on the table next to a myriad of other issues.

Correction: Nov. 4

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that undocumented immigrants in New Haven can obtain a driver’s license. It should have said they will soon be able to obtain a driver’s license. It also incorrectly stated that Alicia Camacho is the chair of the Ethnicity, Race and Migration Department; she is in fact the former Director of Undergraduate Studies. 

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