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Out Of The Shadows

April 11, 2006
By MARK SPENCER, Courant Staff Writer

Pilar Fernandez says that when she became a legal resident of the United States 15 years ago after living for years without documents, she finally felt she had rights in her new country, "a voice."

On Monday, she used that voice as she joined several thousand people in Connecticut - and hundred of thousands of others at similar events around the country - in what organizers billed as a national "campaign for immigrants' dignity."

Fernandez, wearing a lapel pin of the flag of her native Colombia and the Stars and Stripes, waited in front of Sacred Heart Church on Main Street in Hartford to march to the Capitol, the first demonstration she has ever attended. Capitol police estimated the crowd at 1,000, but organizers put it at more than 2,500.

"I had to come," she said.

From Washington, D.C., to tiny Garden City, Kan., the events Monday made it clear that immigration is no longer an issue restricted to border states. Organizers of rallies in Hartford and New Haven said Monday marked a new chapter of the debate in a state with a rapidly growing population of undocumented immigrants.

Although those immigrants in the past preferred to remain in the shadows, organizers said Monday such immigrants joined activists, unions and religious groups in calling for new laws that provide a way for those here illegally to become citizens.

"Today's laws are not only anti-immigrant, today's laws are anti-American," New Haven Mayor and gubernatorial candidate John DeStefano told an estimated crowd of 2,000 on the New Haven Green.

Although some estimates put the number of illegal immigrants in Connecticut at about 70,000, the very nature of the phenomenon makes firm numbers hard to come by.

"Nobody knows how many illegal people are in Connecticut, but if you talk to anyone who knows immigration, it's a huge number," said Renee Redman, a lawyer with the state American Civil Liberties Union.

Isaac Montiel is one of the illegals. Now 17 and a junior in high school, he left his home in Mexico and walked across the border three years ago on a cold night to join his mother, who already had been in Connecticut for several years.

He said he overcame his fear of being caught to attend the rally in New Haven because he wants to go to college, an almost unattainable goal right now because as an illegal immigrant he would have to pay out-of-state tuition.

"Students like me, we're part of the future of this country," said Montiel, who wants to become a computer engineer. "They need us."

But Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton said illegal immigration puts tremendous pressure on local services, from schools to housing to hospitals. He made national headlines last year when he asked the state police to enforce federal immigration law.

The state rejected his request and Boughton turned his attention to forming, with Steve Levy, the top elected official in Suffolk County, N.Y., a group called Mayors and Executives for Immigration Reform. One of the organization's main goals is to get reimbursement from the federal government for the services it provides illegal immigrants.

The immediate impetus for Monday's events is a bill approved by the U.S. House of Representatives that focuses exclusively on enforcement, calling for a wall to be built along the Mexican-U.S. border. The bill would make it a felony to be in the country illegally and a crime for churches and other groups to help illegal immigrants.

A far different bill in the Senate would provide a way for many of the estimated 11 million people in the United States illegally to become citizens. Although it appeared to have bipartisan support, the bill fell apart just before Congress recessed for two weeks.

The tough House bill has been credited with what one immigration activist in the state called awakening a sleeping giant.

Demonstrators on Monday carried American flags and signs reading "We are not criminals" and "No human being is illegal."

Boughton said Monday's events reflected the frustration people on all sides of the issue have with the federal government failing to deal with immigration reform.

"The lesson to be learned by Congress is that throwing up your hands and going home for Easter is just unacceptable," he said. He said he favors reform that combines enforcement with a path to citizenship. Edgar Mendieta, his wife and three children were among the many families on the New Haven Green Monday. He said he has lived in the United States illegally for nine years, works in construction and recently was able to bring his children here from Mexico.

It also was his first demonstration. But he said he wanted people to know how hard life could be for people like him and what they had to offer.

"We work together," he said. "This country stays stronger with us here."

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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