Maurice Harris, 29, wheels his bike around Veronica Eichler, 22, at a bus stop on Grand Avenue, tilting his handlebars to stay upright and stuffing McDonald’s fries into his mouth. Harris’ homemade pin says “RIP Auntie,” and his hat is camouflage. Eichler keeps touching her hair, though it’s slicked back tight and glossy, because she is catching the bus to work, which is at a gas station over by the Yale Bowl.
Eichler is well-versed in what the immigration debate means here: fewer jobs for people who are citizens and are required to be paid fair wages.
“They get hired quicker, because they will work for nothing,” Eichler asserts. “They take away our jobs.”
In Fair Haven — a neighborhood east of downtown that boasts a large immigrant community — even employers who pay under the table, Harris says, know they can’t pull one over on him and make him work for $7, or even $4, when the going rate is $14. But if he spoke only Spanish, it would be a different story.
“I feel you on that aspect,” Harris says to Eichler. “But then, this is a free state, and who is going to get rid of them, anyway?”
They both shake their heads.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) may have four decades and a Kotex inheritance on Eichler and Harris, but they do not need him to tell them about how immigration is “an expensive problem” and a way of “undermining the economy.” Here in New Haven, which boasts a population of approximately 124,000 and a foreign-born population rate of about 11.6 percent, according to the 2000 census, people have been talking and thinking about immigrants, legal and illegal, for a long while.
Here, the furor over Sensenbrenner’s H.R. 4437 — the House bill, which some say is long-overdue and others call xenophobic, that has been debated in the Senate for four months — is just one more sucker punch in a decades-long bout of wondering what things would be like if the 1.1 million immigrants predicted to enter the United States this year just didn’t arrive.
And here, it is the Eichlers and the Harrises, not the Tancredos and Kennedys and other Congressmen lining up on either side of the debate, who will determine the way in which each clause in 4437 — each “defined as” and “under subsection” — plays out. New Haven is a city where thousands will turn out to rally for immigrants’ rights, but no organization so far has launched a movement against illegal immigrants here.
The immigration system is “out of control” and in need of “a change in policy,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) wrote in an e-mail. A higher density of Latinos — 21 percent — than anywhere else in the 9 percent Latino state. Approximately 4,000 undocumented immigrants reside in Fair Haven alone.
New Haven as a microcosm of the national immigration debate seems in some ways oddly apropos and in others completely incongruous, residents say, but the city as a casualty or beneficiary, depending on whom you talk to, of national immigration reform is not open to debate.
Take, for instance, the 4437 proviso that establishes mandatory sentencing ranges for anyone who “knowingly aids or assists” illegal immigrants. Designed to crack down on smugglers, the clause is worded broadly enough that it could apply to anyone — social workers, churches, emergency room attendants, even friends and neighbors — who aids an undocumented immigrant, Yale American studies professor Alicia Camacho said. Camacho is also an immigration researcher and a board member of Junta for Progressive Action, a community-based nonprofit that works on immigrants’ rights projects in Fair Haven.
“Organizations like Junta would be, by definition, in violation of the law and vulnerable to criminal action,” Camacho said. “Despite the disinterest of city officials in making trouble for us, this debate has had an enormous chilling effect on us.”
Sarahi Uribe ’07 spent last year in Guatemala and Brazil, and lived with girls whose mothers had left them for the United States. This year, she is a Dwight Hall Urban Fellow at Junta and said her activism around immigration issues will continue for the rest of her life.
“If this law were passed, I would have no choice but to become a criminal,” Uribe said.
Making a home in New Haven
Little bit of product, pinch between two fingers scissor-style, plaster onto two-inch, crayon-colored rollers — Anna Perez, 41, styling 25-year-old Lismary Tavares’ hair in Finesse Grand LLC on Grand Avenue, keeps curling as she runs through the litany of complaints she has about being an immigrant in this country.
Perez says she is treated differently when she goes to apply for jobs, when she tries to get a driver’s license, and when she tries to get an education. Legal or illegal, this focus on immigration means that Spanish speakers, no matter their status, are harassed more, turned away at banks and interrogated at the Department of Transportation, she says.
This last complaint, Tavares says as she moves out from under Perez’s hands and to the wall-mount dryers, matters a lot in Fair Haven. Tavares and Perez are both from the Dominican Republic by way of New York — Perez has been in the United States since she was 13 and Tavares since she was 14. In New York, hopping on a bus or taking a train from home to work to shop and back was easy. In New Haven, both women say, it is difficult to get around without a driver’s license because the buses take hours.
“If you go somewhere like the Department of Transportation, and you look like you were not born here, they will ask you for all kinds of documentation,” Tavares said. “They can scare you by talking about arrests.”
Tavares said she wishes she could move to Hamden, where Perez lives, because it is “two words: ‘quieter’ and ‘cleaner.'” To someplace where her daughter — Elena, age six, with a game grin and braids she can sit on — can go to a good school. Or back to New York, where people were not quite so terrified to talk to each other in the street, because some immigrants have been around long enough to show the others the ropes. Somewhere where nobody would demand paperwork for every little thing she wants to do.
To break the paralysis that can result from a lack of documentation — fearful illegal immigrants will not even open bank accounts, because neither they nor the banks know that this is allowed, Uribe said — Junta proposed a series of reforms to the Board of Aldermen and City Hall last fall. One of these reforms was enacting a city ID policy, which would allow all New Haven residents, legal or illegal, citizens or not, to obtain an identification card that could be used to access government services.
In September, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. seemed to endorse the policy, Uribe — who helped conduct research for the proposal — said. But after the Associated Press picked up on the story, critics accused DeStefano of supporting lawbreakers. At a Dwight Hall panel last Thursday, Rob Smuts, DeStefano’s deputy chief of staff, said the ID policy is still in the works, though some logistical kinks need to be ironed out.
One of the best and worst things about immigration reform, Uribe said, is that much of the administration of federal laws will take place on a municipal level. This means potentially disparate treatment in cities like Danbury, where the mayor tried to deputize the police force to allow them to enforce federal immigration laws, and cities like New Haven, where the police force’s position is that it does not want to be involved in immigration enforcement.
“New Haven is on its way to becoming a model city,” Uribe said, citing the city’s relatively small size and the openness of City Hall.
Carlos Sallas, 90, is not quite sure he agrees. With his cane stabbing the corner of a grocery store parking lot, Sallas likes to stand on Grand Avenue at sundown to grouse with Oscar Sanchez, who translates affectionately, ribbing the older man about his phobia of revealing his name — he is afraid, he says. After 53 years spent in Fair Haven working and looking out for his family, Sallas is ready to reap his rewards.
Sallas is a retiree now, living off a pension plan. And he counts on the New Haven Police Department to stick up for those who “did it the right way.”
“I came here from Peru to work hard and make some money,” Sallas says, partly through Sanchez and partly in his own intelligible English, which he insists is awful — 53 years, and he has not had to learn compound sentence structures. “Let’s say I am just standing here and minding my own business. Will the police interfere? No! Their job is to watch out for those who would make trouble and disobey the law.”
On the other hand, Camacho, who conducted research in California before coming to Yale, said the relative recency of New Haven’s immigrant influx means there is little opportunity for new immigrants to socialize. There is no density of immigrant-run businesses and, therefore, fewer established immigrants to hire and to help acclimate new immigrants.
New Haven has only recently begun to contend with its large Latino population, Camacho said. Its unions only recently began reaching out to Fair Haven. City Hall launched its “Hablamos Espanol” initiative to translate municipal documents only seven months ago. The institutions to equip immigrants to survive in a new society are still nascent in New Haven, Camacho said.
“Things that are troubling in general in marginalized populations are magnified in undocumented populations,” Camacho said.
This lack of awareness surrounding immigrants’ issues, Uribe said, was a large part of the incentive for the series of events on and near the Yale campus over the past few weeks.
On March 30, 200 students, organized by Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, rallied against Sensenbrenner’s bill. On April 13, Smuts, Camacho, Unidad Latina En Accion President John Lugo and Junta Executive Director Kica Matos jointly condemned the “shadow population” status of immigrants in New Haven. On May 1, organizers with Unidad Latina En Accion and Junta are spreading the word about a boycott of work for all immigrants, part of a national movement that is trying to make the talking point about immigrants as a linchpin of the U.S. economy more real by bringing businesses everywhere to a grinding halt.
And last Monday, April 11, joining hundreds of thousands of demonstrators nationwide, 5,000 New Haven residents, according to the New Haven Independent, turned out en masse for a Connecticut Regional Coalition for Immigrants’ Rights-sponsored rally. Their signs said “we are hardworking and honest,” their jackets bore U.S. flags, and their voices chanted, “Aqui estamos, y no nos vamos,” an El Salvadorian rallying cry meaning, “We are here, and we won’t go.” Uribe, who was involved in organizing the rally and drove through Fair Haven in a pickup truck with a loudspeaker to recruit, said New Haven was selected as the site for the rally almost unanimously.
A fact of life
If Yale students take Elm Street east, away from Gourmet Heaven and walk until they cross State Street, what they will find is “more than they could have imagined” in the “vibrant immigrant community” that is Fair Haven, Uribe said.
More “Hablamos Espanol” signs, but also more “food stamps accepted here” signs scrawled on cardboard and stuffed into barred windows. More old-school Vico C. blaring, more low-rider bikes, more dented Dodge Dynasties drag racing down one-lane Grand Avenue, more girls jumping rope on the curb and then jumping back from the exhaust and fuel and squealing tires.
“God, could you be any more heavy-handed?” Uribe asked when she first ventured across the psychological Maginot line that she said State Street seemed to represent.
Seven blocks beyond that Maginot line, seven teens arrange themselves on seven steps, three joints and three ‘do-rags between the seven of them. Immigration, they say, is a fact of life in Fair Haven, but that does not mean people have stopped being bitter.
“If they are not here legally, I think they need to get the f– out of this country,” says 16-year-old Anis Rivera, seconded by her sister, Pita.
“You want to meet an immigrant?” asks Mike Sanchez, shushing the girls. “There’s a Jamaican girl there, with a fat knot in her pocket.”
A “fat knot” refers to the wads of cash that illegal immigrants too afraid to open bank accounts carry around with them, making them ripe targets — “walking ATMs” — for muggers, Jeff Jayjuan says.
Jose Sanchez’s turn to speak, interrupting Jayjuan, who keeps muttering that it’s more important to “legalize weed,” in the background.
“They are taking our jobs, and they are taking our neighborhood,” Sanchez says, stabbing up the street with a thumb. “But like all of Grand Avenue is immigrants. Just deport them all is what I say. But what are you going to do? Who’s going to do it?”