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A Card To Help New Arrivals

New Haven's Goal: Aid Illegal Immigrants

June 4, 2007
By MARK SPENCER, Courant Staff Writer

NEW HAVEN -- The desperate whimpers coming from inside the locked apartment convinced Marieah Viviel she had to get inside.

The plaintive noise grew louder as Viviel called her friend's name: "Elena! Elena!"

Viviel repeatedly threw her body against the flimsy door until it flung open. She found Elena and her 7-year-old son lying on the kitchen floor, their hands and feet bound with electrical cords.

They had been there for days. A foul stench hung in the air. The apartment was in disarray, ransacked. Everything of value was gone. Mother and child were terrified.

"His face, it was almost like he had a grownup's face," Viviel said, who described the two victims as undocumented immigrants from El Salvador. "Fear changed his face."

The home invasion robbery fit an all-too-familiar pattern for the day-to-day lives of illegal immigrants. Lacking formal documents, they cannot open bank accounts. That means they often carry cash or keep it in their homes, which makes them robbery targets.

"People see the immigrants as walking ATMs," said John Jairo Lugo, an immigrant rights activist.

To address the problem, New Haven wants to create a municipal identification card, which supporters say would help assimilate immigrants as well as provide a range of benefits to other residents who may not have official IDs, such as the elderly and children.

The card would be recognized as official identification within city limits, allowing immigrants to open bank accounts and avoid carrying around wads of cash.

The card also would provide all holders access to city services, from parks to libraries, and function as a type of limited debit card.

The New Haven Board Of Aldermen today is expected to approve the program, which Michael Wishnie, a Yale Law School professor who vetted it, said is the only one of its kind he has seen in the country. Officials from some other cities have already been requesting information about it.

"Our hope would be that other communities around the country would see the value of what New Haven is doing," said Rich Stolz, of the Washington D.C.-based Fair Immigration Reform Movement.

New Haven is joining a growing list of municipalities whose leaders feel compelled to deal with new realities created by illegal immigration in light of inaction by the federal government.

Although some of the proposals, like New Haven's, are supportive of immigrants, the battleground at the local level is more often on proposals that place greater restrictions on illegal immigrants, such as penalizing employers and landlords who hire or rent to them.

According to statistics compiled by the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, 22 municipalities in the country had passed "pro-immigrant" ordinances as of January.

FIRM counted 105 "anti-immigrant" proposals: A third of them have passed, a third have been defeated and a third are still pending.

The proposals often spark intense and emotional political skirmishes. They pit those who see the latest arrivals as continuing the country's immigrant tradition and deserving of human rights and dignity against those who see them as dishonoring that same tradition and posing a threat to the American way of life.

Flavia Jimenez, an immigration policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza, a civil rights advocacy group for Latinos, said opponents of illegal immigration have actively circulated templates of tough ordinances, such as the Illegal Immigration Relief Act, adopted in Hazelton, Pa., last year, which is facing court challenges.

She said the New Haven program represents a pragmatic approach to problems such as crime.

"It sends a signal to the police force and the community that they can work together," Jimenez said.

But Steven A. Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a group seeking to limit immigration, said that while the federal government's failure to enforce immigration law has left states and cities holding the bag, New Haven is making the situation worse.

"It conveys to everyone that America isn't serious about the rule of law, or at least New Haven isn't," Camarota said.

In liberal New Haven, where local police are not allowed to ask about a person's immigration status unless it is relevant to an investigation, the ID program appears to have broad support. It was unanimously approved May 17 after a hearing before the aldermanic finance committee, and the full board will vote on it Monday.

Emphasizing his support for the IDs, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. made a rare appearance before an aldermanic committee, his fourth in 14 years in office. He cast the issue as one of justice and human rights, "a fundamental acknowledgement of an individual's worth and dignity."

The most vocal opposition the plan has attracted is from two small groups opposing illegal immigration, both based outside the city.

"I don't know why they don't realize they are illegals," said Ted Pechinski, a member of Southern Connecticut Citizens for Immigration Reform, based in North Branford.

Pechinski said illegal immigrants "flood our schools and hospitals." The ID cards will encourage more to come to New Haven, he said, and eventually surrounding communities.

The group has been distributing letters and e-mails against the program, which DeStefano denounced as "race-based hate mail."

The city initially proposed the ID cards in 2005, but the proposal was badly botched; DeStefano was preparing to appeal to a broader audience as he ran for governor. His office was flooded with calls from opponents around the state. A series of rapid flip-flops followed, as his office denied such a plan existed, then finally acknowledged it.

The plan went back to the drawing board as immigrants increasingly came to see it as a key to improving the quality of their lives, said Kica Matos, then executive director of Junta for Progressive Action, a New Haven Latino community group.

"It reverberated among the folks in the immigrant community," she said. "They wanted a sense of belonging. They wanted to be able to prove they were residents of New Haven."

Matos, who in January became administrator of the city's Community Services Department, said supporters began asking themselves, "What kind of card would be useful for everyone in New Haven?"

She said the card is designed to benefit the elderly, students and children, as well as improving public safety for immigrants. Elderly residents who no longer have driver's licenses would be able to use it and parents could choose to have emergency information included on a child's card.

Card holders could deposit up to $150 on it to be used at about 50 participating businesses - such as cafes, restaurants and grocery stores - as well as some parking garages and parking meters.

The card, which has yet to be designed, expands on the city's Parcxmart system, which allows people to pay downtown parking meters with a swipe of a card.

The new card would cost $10 for adults and $5 for children and the program would be paid for with a $237,000 grant from the First City Fund Corp. Although the finance committee stipulated that no city money be used, DeStefano said this week that it was possible he would include it in the budget in the future.

Wishnie, the Yale immigration law expert, said he is confident the program will withstand any legal challenges. He and fellow Yale law Professor Robert A. Solomon have offered to represent the city without charge if lawsuits arise.

If it is approved, the program is scheduled to begin in July. Although it is unclear how many residents will request the card, Matos and Lugo said they get calls daily from immigrants wanting to apply.

City officials estimate there are 10,000 to 15,000 undocumented immigrants living in New Haven, including people from Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador and Colombia.

The memory of what happened to her friend almost three years ago still haunts Viviel. She wonders whether an ID card could have provided a fragile link to stability and changed things.

She still remembers the look on the boy's face; how Elena's pretty green eyes were bloodshot, her lips swollen, cut and bloody.

Elena refused to call the police, fearing she could be deported. She wanted water for herself and her son and wanted Viviel to hold both of them.

Viviel left to get them some clothes. The apartment was empty when she returned and she has not seen the two since. Maybe it could have been different, she wonders.

"This card will make the invisible visible and the unvalued valued," she said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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