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Hopes And Handcuffs

As Immigrants Pour Into Danbury, City's Mayor Insists: 'You Have To Be Here Legally'

December 14, 2006
By KIM MARTINEAU, Courant Staff Writer

Juan Barrera jumped at the job: tearing down fence for $11 an hour. Early one morning he hopped into a car with a man dressed like a contractor. But when Barrera and his friends arrived at the site behind a Danbury supermarket, immigration police swooped in.

The 42-year-old immigrant from Ecuador was charged with entering this country illegally and hauled away in handcuffs. As his case threads through immigration court, questions linger about the methods used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that September day in rounding up 11 immigrants, all from Ecuador. The day laborers have become a symbol for both sides in the immigration debate: those insisting on equal rights for all, and those pushing for tighter borders and tougher enforcement of national immigration laws.

A group of students at Yale Law School is expected to file suit today in federal court in a bid to find out how Homeland Security put together its sting on Sept. 19. The students want to know what role Danbury played in the operation and if the policies guiding the department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm may be unconstitutional. Their inquiry began with a request under the federal Freedom of Information Act. "We asked nicely," said Simon Moshenberg, a second-year student from Washington, D.C. "They didn't answer. We sued." The lawsuit is an attempt to shine light on Homeland Security's secretive post-9/11 strategies.

Three months after the Danbury arrests, distrust and anger divide a city that was once the hat-making capital of the world, drawing German and Italian laborers. The city's official population is 80,000, but an estimated 20,000 recent immigrants from Brazil and Ecuador now call Danbury home, some counted in the census, others not, many of them undocumented.

Leading the unrest is Mayor Mark Boughton, a Republican who speaks some Spanish. The three-term mayor has been accused of selectively enforcing city ordinances to drive away unwanted immigrants. Under his watch, the city has cracked down on housing code violations, minor driving infractions and late night volleyball games. Boughton denies any part in the September sting, but a series of events, summarized in the suit, suggest the city may have played a supporting role.

Two years ago, the mayor asked federal immigration police for help in reducing Danbury's population of undocumented immigrants. He then asked the state attorney general to deputize state or local police to arrest them, a failed move that nonetheless grabbed headlines. Last year, he helped found "Mayors and County Executives for Immigration Reform," a national group that lobbies Congress for help in dealing with "challenges posed by illegal immigration."

In an interview Wednesday, Boughton insisted that immigration police acted alone. They notified Danbury police this summer that they'd be making some arrests this fall but offered no other details, he said. He makes no apologies for their actions.

"You have to be here legally," he said. "That's the fundamental basis of our society."

Illegal immigrants put a strain on local schools and hospitals, he said. They depress wages and threaten public safety, Boughton said, as they cram into apartments to save money, creating the risk of fire. In a weak economy, he said, the city must pick up the burden. "You can't leave people on the street without housing or food," Boughton said.

Speaking slowly and through a translator on a recent night, Barrera agreed to talk in the company of law student interns at Yale. As a condition of his interview, the interns asked that no questions tied to his immigration status be asked since he faces a civil violation and the case is pending.

Barrera shares a house in Danbury with friends, and each morning waits in downtown Kennedy Park, known to job-seekers as "la parada." A job he had lined up previously fell through on the morning of his arrest, so when a man drove by offering demolition work, Barrera and two friends got in. When they arrived at the site, immigration police arrested them. Undercover police made several more trips to Kennedy Park, until a total of 11 immigrants had been assembled. They were booked in Danbury, processed in Hartford and taken to separate jails in Massachusetts.

To outsiders, the men simply vanished. Friends and relatives frantically searched for news. One call reached Junta for Progressive Action in New Haven, an immigrant advocacy group. "Slowly we pieced it together," said Kica Matos, head of Junta, a plaintiff in the Yale suit.

Advocates tracked down lawyers and helped raise money for bail so the jailed individuals could be free while awaiting their administrative hearing. For 17 days, Barrera lived in confinement. Finally he shuffled into a Boston courtroom in prison scrubs and shackles. He spotted Wilson Hernandez, a supporter who owns a restaurant in Danbury. Several Yale interns were there, too. As his spirits rose, Barrera began to cry.

Hernandez, an American citizen born in Ecuador, remembers the shock of seeing his fellow Ecuadorians in chains. "We couldn't imagine that was happening in our country," he said.

After posting bail, Barrera was freed and driven home. The men jailed in Plymouth, Mass., faced taller hurdles. They were shipped to Texas for bond hearings and forced to raise as much as $15,000 in bail. In one case, bail was denied because the judge feared the man might flee. Rather than fight his case from a jail cell, he left the United States. The five remaining men eventually bought bus tickets back to Danbury.

Despite the continued threat of deportment, Barrera seems to harbor no malice toward the mayor. He had just one plea. "All we want to do is work and to ask him, `Would he let us work?' We only want to be useful to American society."

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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