The Party Chairman and the Priest
A community forum on the meaning of “sanctuary” splits along national fault lines
On the evening of Monday, March 27, over 140 people sat at tables of eight in a bright green room at Gateway Community College. The small size of the tables seemed intentional. So did the choice of communal seating, rather than rows of chairs. WSHU Public Radio, WNPR and the New England News Collaborative had organized this forum to bring out local perspectives on the topic: “What makes a sanctuary city now?” The original plan was to give various speakers a few minutes each, and then break into small groups for discussion. But the fierce back-and-forth between speakers swept up so many attendees that the planned second segment never had a chance.
The hostility between the two sides of the national aisle emerged throughout the forum. J.R. Romano, Connecticut Republican party chairman, asked at the end, “When I’m being called a racist and a xenophobe, do you think I want to have a conversation?” Earlier that night, he had been accused of “issuing a dog whistle to racism” by two different attendees of the forum, Colleen Shaddox and Angel Fernandez-Chavero ’85. Throughout the event, he publicly asserted that people in the room were making assumptions about him based on his party affiliation. But the Rev. James Manship of St. Rose of Lima parish took him to task for reinforcing, in his view, dangerous stereotypes about undocumented immigrants. Both originally from Connecticut, Romano and Manship are dedicated to public service in very different spheres — party politics and the Catholic faith. During and after the forum, both argued that polarized rhetoric stops democracy in its tracks. But they present very different repairs for a broken body politic.
Halfway through the first hour, co-host John Dankosky, executive editor of the New England News Collaborative, turned to the speaker an attendee would later call “our poor devil’s advocate.” J.R. Romano stood to ask, “How many people know who Casey Chadwick is?”
Only one person raised their hand. Another person immediately hissed.
Romano explained: In 2015, Chadwick was killed by an undocumented Haitian immigrant in Norwich, Connecticut. Then Romano very quickly moved on, despite a low-volume grumble circulating the room. “I’m not trying to harm people,” he said, arguing that he wanted to represent “many people who think [illegal immigration] is unfair.” He struck another nerve when he briefly alluded to a friend of his who had not been admitted to Yale. “He didn’t get in. His spot was given to someone else,” Romano said. Many in the audience immediately responded to his apparent implication that “someone else” was undocumented. After outcry from the audience, Romano clarified — he meant that this was merely “the perception to that family and that family’s friends.”
He then said these types of perceptions partially fueled electoral support for Donald Trump. Angel Fernandez-Chavero, acting interim executive director of New Haven’s Commission on Equal Opportunities, accused Romano of perpetuating those perceptions. “You blame us for murder, basically repeating the Trump issue — you slander my family, enough!” For Fernandez-Chavero, the allegations had become very personal. The son of Mexican immigrants, both he and his sister attended Yale.
The mood of the event had shifted dramatically. Before the co-host moved on, Romano told the audience, “you guys have a perception of me based on the party I represent—” and was cut off by shouting. After a few more speakers, Romano was confronted by several attendees. Joe Foran of Unidad Latina en Acción rose to address Romano as “our poor devil’s advocate.” He argued that sanctuary city policies prevent violence such as the murder of Chadwick, and that responding to such a tragedy with more tragedies “for families” is not acceptable.
Colleen Shaddox of East Haddam then asked Romano pointedly, “So what do you believe?”
“I’m just one person,” Romano started, before Shaddox countered him. “You’re the chair of the GOP of the state. What does your party believe?”
“All I’m trying to do is create a dialogue,” replied Romano. He stated that he intended to relay a perception within his party of unfairness, rather than a perception of immigrants as “all rapists or murderers.” He quickly added, “I don’t believe that.”
Stepping into the aisle between tables, Romano asked Manship, “Father, how are you going to fix those wrong perceptions?”
Manship also stepped into the aisle to face him, and shrugged. “You’re just reinforcing them.”
Manship and Romano came to the event with very different visions for the next four years. Both are invested in the issue of immigration: Romano, the product of a working family who idolizes the traditional concept of the “American dream” in which anyone can work their way up, and Manship, the spiritual leader who was once arrested while defending the rights of minority shop owners against the police. They agree that the American political dialogue has been devastated by an unwillingness to listen — but they chalk that up to very different factors on both sides.
During his senior year at Trinity College, J.R. Romano researched the history of Italian immigrants in a seminar, asking, in his own words, “what did we do right, what did we do wrong.” He said he sought to find out how the “Hispanic process” could be streamlined, to give “economic power” to legal immigrants. “We’re doing it all wrong, by the way,” he told the Magazine after the forum.
A native of Derby, Connecticut, Romano has been a consultant and operative for the Republican party for most of his adult life. As he told the Valley Independent Sentinel in 2015, his career began straight out of college, when state Republicans saw him as a video jockey on an MTV special, “VJ For a Day.” His father, a vendor for the GOP, had told them to watch — and they offered Romano an internship. Over a decade later, Romano now works to support Republican Town Committees and groom local candidates towards election wins.
“It was an interesting dynamic to sit and listen,” Romano later said of the forum. “People were calling me names, that I’m a bigot, getting hissed at — what I couldn’t get the people in the room to understand was how people think and feel who aren’t in that room.” When asked about the negative reaction to his use of Casey Chadwick’s murder as evidence, he accused activists on the other side of the aisle of using, “in the same breath,” a pregnant mother at the forum whose fiance had just been picked up for deportation. Referring specifically to liberal activists, Romano said “They can talk about the tragedies, but anybody who opposes them cannot talk about the tragedies.”
To Manship, relying on single cases such as Chadwick’s as part of the discourse on illegal immigration is strategic — and damaging. He told the Magazine, “for lack of a better word, the propaganda of trying to conflate unlawful presence in the country with criminality is just wrong.”
When he first stood up, Manship told the forum, “I’m going to speak as a Roman Catholic priest.” He was echoing a statement he made in 2012: “I’m not an activist. I’m a priest.” Manship had made the distinction after he was named public citizen of the year by the Connecticut chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. He had been arrested in 2009 after filming two East Haven police officers during an incident of discrimination against minority store owners. The recording spurred a probe by the U.S. Justice Department.
Manship emphasizes that his faith motivates him. A self-described gringo, he serves a parish from 18 countries, including several different language groups. “It is a very diverse community. And I gotta deliver for them,” he said. Sanctuary, before it was applied to a city, was a church term from the Middle Ages. “Our church is a place of respite and that’s what I think New Haven is, and what I think Connecticut is,” Manship said. The church does not use the term officially, “so as not to confuse our folks that the government would respect our decision to give them refuge” in the case of raids.
The parish, which has the largest Latino population of any Catholic church in the city, has begun to act, rather than react, according to Manship. St. Rose of Lima recently held a workshop for over 100 families, during which parents could sit down with an attorney and establish temporary guardianship and power of attorney. The parish leadership, which includes parishioners from each of those 18 countries, sought to give the families a measure of control while immigration policy enforcement remains uncertain.
“We don’t need to react, we have space to act,” Manship said. “Why poke a finger in the eye of a lion?” he had asked at the forum, arguing that the city and its citizens should continue to provide policies and services to protect immigrants, rather than provoking the federal government by asserting the label “sanctuary city.”
Romano acknowledges that the situation for New Haven is far from simple. “This is tough, this is real life. People are gonna suffer.” Yet, he believes the solution is immigration reform, rather than sanctuary for undocumented immigrants “in perpetuity.” He reiterated to the Magazine that, for his side of the aisle, the debate often hinges on a perception that some immigrants are “jumping the line” without consequences. He also posed a hypothetical to the Magazine, one he wished he had been able to mention at the forum: What if the murder of Chadwick had happened in New Haven? Specifically, Romano wanted to ask the forum attendees, “What do you say to her mom?” But without moving past charged rhetoric, Manship doesn’t see a likely compromise on immigration. “When you get into ideological stances, it’s not about people anymore, it’s this checklist of things you have to comply with,” he told the Magazine. And at this point, the checklists of the majority party and immigration advocates seem irreconcilable.
At Gateway, despite clear divides, Romano and many others nodded in agreement with one statement at the end of the event. Fernandez-Chavero, reflecting on his own delayed path to citizenship, fraught with bureaucratic difficulties, had remarked that despite it all, “this country is the greatest country in the world.”