New Haven has become an epicenter of the nation’s immigration debate in the past week, beginning with the approval of a first-in-the-nation municipal ID program and then, several days later, the arrests of dozens of city residents in federal immigration raids.

On Monday, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. released a six-page document arguing that the June 5 raids — in which about 30 undocumented immigrants were arrested in the city’s Fair Haven neighborhood — were retaliation by the Department of Homeland Security for the city’s planned municipal ID program. But a Department of Homeland Security spokesman denied the charge Tuesday, calling the mayor’s allegations “attempts at making political hay.”

DeStefano said the early-morning arrests were marred by constitutional violations, a “traumatic impact” on young children, racial profiling and a failure to “follow protocol.” The mayor called on Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to suspend any future raids planned for the city.

As of Tuesday afternoon, DeStefano appeared to be making progress in his fight against the federal government: An U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement field director told the Associated Press that field operations would be temporarily halted so as to not put officers in harm’s way during a period of anti-ICE sentiment in the city.

But Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Kanocke said ICE was not giving up its efforts in response to DeStefano’s criticisms.

“Secretary Chertoff strongly supports the men and women of ICE and the work that they’re doing in enforcing our nation’s immigration laws, and I can tell you that under no circumstance will this department … back down from enforcing the rule of law — period,” he said Tuesday night. “When you have a local official that makes the suggestion that an enforcement action is somehow correlated to the political views or policies of a community, it’s just bogus. That’s not at all how it works, and it’s not even close to grasping the sophistication and the planning that goes into an ICE enforcement action.”

Kanocke, speaking generally, said IC E consults the “relevant” officials in a city before conducting a raid. DeStefano says neither he nor any police officers were contacted before last week’s raid in New Haven.

The raids last Tuesday came less than 36 hours after the Board of Aldermen approved a municipal ID program in a nearly unanimous vote. The prevalent mood among immigrant rights advocates went from ecstatic to somber after the raids, and three rallies have been organized to protest the arrests.

DeStefano, for his part, said the city will continue to focus on the public safety of immigrants in the absence of national immigration reform, which stalled in Congress this week. Supporters of the munical ID program said it will protect immigrants by giving them a way to save money without having to keep cash on their persons or in their homes.

“New Haven’s been built by immigrant’s vision and work,” DeStefano said. “When you talk to these folks, you just get a strong sense of how hard they work and the values that they share about seeing their families do well.”

Local fears

Two days after the raid last week, more than 1,000 supporters and residents crowded into the St. Rose of Lima Church, children clamoring onto laps in order to make room for more people. The mass, conducted almost entirely in Spanish, was followed by a rally — and the influx of another 200 residents — on the steps of the church.

Holding signs reading, “Para dios no hay extranjeros” — “For God There Are No Strangers” — residents were joined by city officials to protest the ICE raids. Rally-goers were asked to sign up for municipal ID cards as an act of defiance, and by the end of the night, many applications had been filled out, some with more than one name crammed into a space because so many people sought to sign up.

In an interview the day after the raids, “Las Americas” convenience store owner Oscar Muralles said that it had been a “dead day,” as many immigrants stayed indoors because they feared they would be detained by immigration officials.

“It reminded me when I was standing outside 16 years ago,” he said. “I had just arrived and there were only black people and Puerto Ricans on the street. In the past five years many Central Americans and Mexicans came, but today no one’s walking on Grand Avenue except for black-Americans and Puerto Ricans. We’re waiting to serve people and they’re not coming. I don’t blame them.”

Alberto, a city resident hailing from Mexico who declined to reveal his last name, said through a translator that he left for work in the morning and returned to find his five housemates on Warren Place gone.

“He’s scared,” said the translator, Eduardo Solis. “He’s going to lose where he lives.”

A team from Yale Law School has been assembled to defend the immigrants detained in the raids, with help from other local pro bono organizations such as the ACLU.

But Lydia Rivera, who is Puerto Rican and lives in Fair Haven, said she did not have a fundamental problem with the arrests because the immigrants were allegedly here in the country illegally..

“I feel sorry for these people because they come out here to look for a better life, but instead of doing it the right way, they do it the wrong way,” Rivera said.

The scene that would later transpire at the church was reminiscent of the immigrant rights rally and march that took started on the New Haven Green on May Day when ralliers shouted “Si se puede” and held up signs calling for universal human rights. But this time, the crowd was more somber. Rather than cheer, the audience applauded; rather than smile, faces remained stone-faced.

National reactions

The raids in the city have also garnered national attention, prompting responses from politicians — including 2008 presidential candidates — and Americans from around the country.

“The people targeted in [the] raid are hard working and productive,” former New Mexico Governor and Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson, who is half-Mexican, said in a statement last week. “They have families and they don’t have criminal record. The tactics reportedly used by agents — taking suspects away in front of family members, including young children — are extreme and uncalled for. This is another clear example of why Congress must pass comprehensive immigration reform as soon as possible.”

Connecticut Senators Joe Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 and Chris Dodd, a Democratic candidate for president, and U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro, whose district includes New Haven, sent a letter to Chertoff calling for answers to questions over the nature of the raids.

But in e-mails to lawmakers, some Connecticut — and non-Connecticut — residents are questioning the mayor’s stance.

“For shame!” Wethersfield, Conn., resident Leigh Standish wrote in an e-mail to Ward 1 Alderman Nick Shalek. “You have performed a grave disservice to the residents and taxpayers of New Haven, as well as to the rest of the State and Nation. You 
have lowered the bar on criminal activity and legitimized illegal behavior. Your statement is that it’s okay to break the law.”

In another e-mail to Shalek, Betty Dobson asked, “What’s wrong with you people? … Have you forgotten about the three illegals who wanted to kill our military at Fort Dix?”

“It is people like you who are responsible for home-grown terrorists because you allow them to fester like a cancer in your city,” she said.

Shalek said he has also received a number of e-mails from residents, including Yale students, who are supportive of the ID cards and outraged over the raids. He said it is now time for Yalies, if they are bothered by the events, to assist. Students have at least three options, he said: Contacting DeLauro, Lieberman or Dodd; making donations for the bond that will be required to release the immigrants who have been detained; and attending a “Stop the Raids” march planned for Saturday, June 16.

Yet however much DeStefano and city officials attempt to appeal for compassion in the coming days — his spokeswoman’s initial reaction after the raids was to call for help for the children who would return to parentless homes — the Department of Homeland Security is unlikely to bend in its conviction that arresting undocumented workers comes down to what it views as a basic responsibility: enforcing federal law.

“We’re not going to back down,” Kanocke said.