A Haven For Immigrants

On a bright spring morning, all blue skies and sweet breezes, the gelato vendors along New Haven’s Grand Avenue have gotten off to a good start. Jose Torres, a clean-cut Honduran who came here seven years ago, is having trouble keeping up with orders for his pink and blue ice treats. As soon as he puts the finishing touches to one teetering gelato, another impatient hand shoots up to claim the next. It’s all good business, though, so he is smiling. How does he like his life here? “This is the land of opportunity!” he answers without a trace of irony. Then, taking a second to find the right words, he adds: “Things are good here, we are in security. All is tranquilo.”

Farther down Grand Avenue, past D’Amatos’ seafood shack and the faded whitewash storefront of Pop’s Grocery, Linda Rose of Puerto Rico strolls with a girlfriend, matching strollers in tow. She is surprised by my question—the same one I asked Torres—and shoots back: “Honey, I used to live in the Bronx—that was crazy. I love it here.” As a car stereo fills the air with gentle tunes from another world, it becomes easy to understand why she does. In the neighborhood of Fair Haven, where some 15,000 Latin Americans have settled in the hopes of finding a better deal than back home, the atmosphere is light and palpably relaxed—a far cry from the self-important hustle of downtown New Haven.

Many residents say they came to Fair Haven to escape the accelerado lifestyle of the Bronx and other Hispanic strongholds in the Northeast. But there is more at work here than fair weather, an easygoing pace and good cheer. While New Haven is not the only Connecticut city with a large immigrant population, it has earned a reputation as an immigrant-friendly city whose laws and politicians work with—not against—newly arrived residents.

In the 1960s, most newcomers were Puerto Ricans who ended up in New Haven almost by chance, diverted from saturated ethnic neighborhoods in New York and New Jersey. Since the 1990s, though, immigrants have been streaming in from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and other Latin American countries, swelling New Haven’s Hispanic community to a full 20% percent of the city’s total population.

That figure may seem exaggerated, especially to Yalies whose daily activities rarely lead them into the neighborhoods where most immigrants live and work. But Kica Matos, who runs City Hall’s Community Services program, says it may be an understatement: New Haven’s immigration boom has continued unabated through the last decade, and as many as several thousand newcomers may be undocumented.

Of course, the explosion in population carries with it a host of problems, ranging from housing shortages to violence to labor exploitation. Undocumented workers in most American cities are at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords and employers because they don’t have recourse to legal aid if they are mistreated. But thanks to the work of community activists and legal aid workers at the Yale Law School, the status quo in New Haven has been changing in favor of the immigrants.

Recently, a series of measures aimed at improving security and living standards for its immigrant population has proved the city’s commitment to a progressive immigration policy. The General Order, for example, prevents New Haven police officers from checking for citizenship status when they make an arrest, improving immigrants’ sense of security. And when they are exploited by employers—as was the case in February when 12 Guatemalan workers were threatened with deportation if they did not submit to brutal working conditions—immigrants can count on the support of legal advocacy clinics at the Law School’s Legal Services Organization.

Another aspect of the city’s immigrant-friendly policy is its attention to day-to-day needs: City Hall sponsors housing programs for immigrants, as well as financial education schemes to encourage them to place their money in banks. These are especially important, Matos says, as undocumented workers carrying their salaries in cash are frequently targeted by criminals who see them as “walking ATM machines.” Furthermore, City Hall is putting the final touches on a plan to introduce municipal identity cards—an additional safeguard against exploitation.

If the municipal IDs become a reality, they will make New Haven the first American city to introduce such a measure, with the exception of Washington DC. But the latter is an anomaly in that its city authorities also fulfill duties that would elsewhere be handled by the state. The nation’s capital also requires residents to provide a Social Security number to obtain an ID—a requirement that excludes undocumented workers. New Haven’s plan is to distribute its card as widely as possible so that it doesn’t become a giveaway of immigrant status. As an incentive to non-immigrants, the prototype version doubles as a library card, and includes a chip that will allow people to use it to pay for parking or coffee and snacks at select locations.

Breakthroughs like the municipal ID have earned the Elm City headlines in national news sources—and cemented its reputation as a pioneer in immigration policy. A recent New York Times article titled “New Haven Welcomes Immigrants, Legal or Not” said that the city was steadily moving toward becoming a “safe haven for immigrants.” But despite the positive press, much about New Haven’s stance on immigration remains unexplained.

Other liberal towns are home to large immigrant populations, but don’t necessarily reach out to them. Why is New Haven leading the way? How do ideas like the municipal ID become reality? Part of the answer lies with New Haven’s unique confluence of vigorous community activism, backing from legal advocates, and a favorably disposed City administration. But without the vision and drive of passionate individuals, New Haven would not have become the immigrant boom-town it is today.

***

Below the vast bay windows of Kica Matos’ office at City Hall, the New Haven Green stretches out in a neat plan of lines and limits, every bit the vision of harmony intended by New Haven’s Puritan architects, who had hoped their city would serve as a model for all other American cities. Much has changed since the 17th century, but New Haven’s administrators still believe the city can serve as a model. Only this time, they hope other cities will follow its lead on immigration policy.

At the political forefront of the movement is Mayor DeStefano, a democratic politician who has made immigration the priority of his administration. But people like Kica Matos provide New Haven with an edge: youthful, charming and gifted with pugnacious intelligence, she has broken through the barrier that normally separates community activists from politicians. Since she became Community Services Coordinator earlier this year, she has had to tone down her demands somewhat—and learn to speak for the establishment—but her convictions have remained largely the same as when she battled for immigrant rights at the head Junta for Progressive Action, an advocacy group catering to New Haven’s Hispanic population.

When Matos arrived in New Haven in 2002, she came equipped with a Cornell Law degree and a lifelong passion for social justice. Her husband had landed a job at City Hall, prompting Matos to leave her job as a federal defender for death-row inmates. She set out to look for work in social advocacy, and ended up interviewing for a position at Junta. Her first impression of the group was that it had enormous potential for impact, but lacked organization and resources. “I saw that even though the place was in disarray, immigrants were coming through the door for help,” she said. “There was work to be done.”

Soon enough, Matos became Junta’s executive director. One of her first initiatives was a study of New Haven’s demographic make-up that revealed two important facts: that the immigrant population was growing at an explosive rate, and that the newcomers were arriving from all over South America and the Caribbean Islands. They flocked to Fair Haven in search of employment and community—but with no knowledge of English, they were hard-pressed to find housing and jobs. Matos tackled the problem by setting up food pantries, employment listings and ESL classes at Junta’s offices on Grand Avenue.

Still, there were other issues that Matos could not confront with Junta’s limited resources. Worker exploitation, unfair housing deals and violent crime all affected immigrants disproportionately. “Even issues that weren’t related to immigration at first glance would end up being related anyway,” she said during an interview at City Hall, where she now works. “Everywhere we turned, immigration reared its head.”

At the time, New Haven lacked a comprehensive plan of action for solving its immigration-related problems, she said. The impetus for action came when a member of the Fair Haven community approached Matos with a housing problem. As punishment for unpaid rent, his landlord had cut off electricity to his apartment. Junta workers investigated the claim and found eleven immigrants—ten adults and one baby—huddled in a dark room. In the dead of winter, the landlord had also seen fit to turn off the heat. Even worse, he was charging each of the eleven tenants $400 per month to live in these atrocious conditions, and harassing them with threats of legal action if they didn’t pay up.

For Matos, the solution was not more direct-action social work. Immigrants needed a platform from which to demand civil rights or they would continue to be exploited. And they needed legal representation. Kica invited clinical attorneys Bob Solomon, Carroll Lucht and Steve Wizner of the Law School to a meeting with community activists at Junta’s Grand Avenue offices. Their objective was to explore options for legal action against the landlord. The resulting court case gave reason to the tenants—but more importantly, it laid the foundations for a fruitful partnership between grass-roots activists and legal advocates in New Haven.

With time, the partnership developed into an astonishingly effective platform for immigration-rights advocacy. Junta and other groups were uniquely placed to identify problems in their communities, but lacked the legal expertise to bring exploitative employers and landlords to justice. That’s where student volunteers at Yale’s Jerome Frank Legal Services came into play. Not only did they defend immigrants in Connecticut courts, they went to bat for community leaders in the political arena, providing critical research for policy proposals.

As Matos describes it, ideas began to move fluidly along a conduit leading directly from the immigrant community to legal representatives at Yale. One such idea was the municipal ID card. According to Matos, it first came up during a meeting convened to find ways of obtaining drivers’ licenses for immigrants. A “guy called Antonio” suggested the municipal ID at the meeting, she said, and Junta appealed to the Legal Services Organization to evaluate its feasibility in legal terms. The system was working. LSO students confirmed that Connecticut state law did not prevent cities from issuing their own ID cards, and a proposal was submitted to the mayor for review. Now, it is in the final stages of preparation, and Matos is confident that New Haven residents will embrace it.

Asked why she thinks her time at Junta was so productive in bringing change to New Haven’s immigration policy, Matos credits two factors in particular: the willingness of Mayor DeStefano to pursue immigrant-friendly policies, and the help of Yale Law School in reforming New Haven’s immigration policy. Their work on immigration-related issues, led by a cadre of forward-thinking students and professors, is the keystone of the city’s success story.

***

The Jerome Frank Legal Services Organization on Wall Street houses a variety of legal clinics—pro-bono workshops where clients can come and seek legal council from some of the best legal talents in the country. The clinics, which tackle issues ranging from political asylum to workers’ and immigration rights, are staffed by volunteer law students who work under the supervision of trained attorneys. There are as many clinics as there are law schools throughout the country, but LSO has distinguished itself in recent years as a laboratory for a new form of legal advocacy.

Gone are the days when lawyers worked in a vacuum, attending only to legal matters and avoiding contact with the community. Michael Wishnie MC ’87, the director of the Workers and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic, proposes a corporate analogy to describe his work at the Yale Law School: rather than focus exclusively on legal issues, he encourages students to “understand the term ‘lawyer’ very broadly.” In practical terms, that means handling community-based advocacy groups as corporate law-firms might treat a high-profile corporate client—with a keen eye for public relations.

“Groups in the community sometimes say to us: ‘Help us think of ways to get the media interested,’” he said. “That kind of strategic thinking to me is good and critical work that is not taught in law schools—it’s the kind of approach a corporation offers.”

“Personally, I think it’s all valuable,” he added, referring to the multi-faceted approach that has come to define clinical work at Yale. When Wishnie came to work at the Yale Law School in 2005, he had already founded a successful public advocacy clinic at NYU Law, and hoped to apply what he had learned to his new job. The result was the Workers and Immigrants Rights Advocacy Clinic, a legal-aid organization that caters to New Haven’s booming immigrant population, and has proven effective in promoting immigrant-friendly legislation at the city level.

When it was formed in 2005, WIRAC joined a long list of Yale Law School clinics that proposed free legal services to the New Haven community. But the bulk of the work done at LSO had to do with political asylum proceedings; immigrant rights’ advocacy remained an underdeveloped field despite pioneering efforts from LSO director Bob Solomon, and professors Carroll Lucht and Steve Wizner. WIRAC prioritized cases of immigrant exploitation in the New Haven community, and set about providing legal expertise for community-based groups like Junta and ULA.

Under Wishnie’s guidance, students continued to learn how to argue a case in front of a judge—but they also learned how to win in the court of public opinion. Wishnie’s holistic approach to legal advocacy, which combined legal work with PR strategizing, went over well with LSO students, as many come from backgrounds in political activism and union

Law student Simon Moshenburg says he embraces his personal involvement with the clinic’s clients, refusing to draw a line between friendship and professional relations. Like many WIRAC volunteers, Moshenberg had already acquired experience in immigrants’ rights activism as an undergraduate. As a lawyer-in-training, though, he has replaced petitions and picketing with legal briefs and court appearances.

The combination has proved surprisingly effective. Earlier this year, Moshenberg was involved in an immigration case that made headlines throughout Connecticut. The “Danbury 11” case, as it has become known in newspapers, took up the cause of 11 Mexican day-laborers who were allegedly detained under false pretences after being arrested by the Danbury police.

When Moshenberg and his classmates first heard of the arrests, very little information was available to the public. “11 guys get picked up during a raid in Danbury, CT. That’s all we had,” he remembers. As court cases go, this one was a long shot. “Any private lawyer would have said ‘these guys have no claim—they should get deported as quickly as possible,” he said. However, a taste for improbable challenges is what got people like Moshenberg into Yale’s Law School in the first place; it would take more to discourage them from taking on the case.

Part of the challenge had to do with the fact that the claimants were undocumented workers—a group that is not guaranteed legal council under US law. As a result, many avoid contact with authorities altogether because they fear being deported back to their country of origin if they are picked up by the police. Michael Tan, another law student who volunteers at LSO, says the lack of legal recourse for immigrants in the United States is one of the main reasons he and others were motivated to work on the Danbury 11 case.

“Abuses happen left and right when immigrants are arrested,” he said. “Most often they don’t know their rights and don’t get legal representation. The mere fact of legal representation makes a big difference.”

Indeed, upon investigation, law students found a number of abuses in the way the Danbury police had handled the arrests. They have based their legal defense on allegations that the day-laborers were racially profiled, arrested on false pretenses and improperly detained by the Danbury police, which allegedly did not have authority to intervene in immigration-related crimes. The Danbury 11 case is still being argued before a Connecticut court, but based on Yale’s impressive success rate in similar legal battles, there is reason to believe at least some of the charges will stick.

The fact that LSO enjoys an “astonishingly high success rate” in its legal pursuits explains why many immigrants are eager to be represented by Yalies, Tan said. Other factors include the exceptional resources available to clinical workers—notably a small army of translators drawn from Yale’s large pool of international students. Without them, communication between students and their immigrant clients—most of whom don’t speak English—would be excessively laborious. “We can get pretty much anything we want translated,” he said, “tomorrow I’m having someone translate in Swahili—it’s terrific.”

ack on Grand Avenue, it’s closing time, and shopkeepers are lowering the metal grilles on their storefronts. The calling centers advertising cut-rate prices for calls to Guadalajara and Tegucigalpa are still open though, and men are filing in from the street. After a long day’s work, they proceed quietly in groups of twos and threes, and wait patiently by the phones for a chance to call home. The work they are able to find as movers, custodians and shop assistants call for repetitive labor and long hours. So for the most part, they just seem exhausted. As it is, New Haven might offer them a better chance at a peaceful, safe existence than what they could get at home—but it’s still a long way from paradise.

Comments

  • tjhotdogs

    This is a well written response to a poorly conceived campaign. Bravo.

  • tjhotdogs

    Poorly written, cliché, hackneyed and in extremely poor taste. And YDN thinks people will pay money for this dribble? A friend of mine, not from Yale sends me the link to this and says “this is your school?” This is not even fit for Rumpus (see poorly written, cliché and hackneyed).

    This is embarrassing, and a terrible choice of pictures to go with the article. Maybe James Franco was right all along.

    -Josh Ray BK ’13